A Chorus of Innocents ushers forward Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, the married woman whom Carey adores but respects. It opens when a very pregnant young woman rides to Lady Widdrington’s tower crying that her minister husband has been murdered and she herself has been raped.
You will meet canny King James VI, his amoral favorite Lord Spynie, the fey Lady Hume, Mr. Anricks, a surprisingly skilled tooth drawer, Young Henry Widdrington with his unfortunate spots, and all the boys in murdered Minister Burn’s choir. The action proceeds full tilt for ten days and “finishes with a marvelous set piece of derring-do involving enough arms and ammunition for the siege of Stalingrad, plus the last line will leave you with your heart in your mouth,” says author Dana Stabenow, who adds, “As always the scene Chisholm sets is a veritable time travel portal you step through the instant you turn to the first page.”
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A Chorus of Innocents
A Sir Robert Carey Mystery
By P. F. Chisholm
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2015 P. F. Chisholm
All rights reserved.
thursday afternoon 12th october 1592
The men had been riding for two days, and were now into the broad fat lands of the East March of Scotland where the Humes held sway. They had instructions but those had been vague on the important point of position.
"Och, we'll never find him," complained the younger one. "A' the villages look the same."
The older one shook his head. "We ainly need his kirk," he said.
"Ay, one kirk in hundreds."
It was surprising and the older one thought a little shocking that there were so many kirks, and not all of them burnt or in ruins like in the Low Countries. Some old Catholic churches had been torn down and a new one put up, but more often they were just altered with the heads of the saints knocked off and the paintings whitewashed. Not every village had a kirk, by a long way, but a lot did.
They came over the top of a shallow hill and saw another little scatter of cottages and the kirk on the next hill, with a nice tower on it to keep an eye out for raids. It was October, so only a few women were out in the gardens, mostly tidying up for winter or planting winter cabbages. The surviving cattle and sheep were scattered over the infield and most of the pigs had gone to make sausages now so there wasn't a lot of noise. There was ploughing going on nearby, with the village plow and its oxen struggling through some new Earth that might grow some wheat next year, while the children followed it gathering up the stones. The harvest had been poor thanks to the bad weather in July, and no doubt the people were hoping to grow a bit more on the new field next year.
The two of them didn't need to talk much. They knew what they were about, had done it before, and so they decided to make for the church alehouse. That was a small thatched building next to the church in the old way and the church was one of those that had been altered, not demolished.
It was cold and damp and the men were out of their own country. They rode into the village, tethered their horses by the duck pond and walked up to the alehouse. They weren't very many miles north of Berwick itself and hoped to get to the city that night and find lodgings there. They didn't expect to find any in this village, any more than they had in the last two or three.
The village alehouse was no longer run by the church. A young man stood behind the bar and the usual people were there, despite it being afternoon. Two men sat in the corner playing dice, a third was hunched over his quart by the fire, a fourth was asleep. The fifth and sixth were standing by the bar, arguing over whether a billy goat could beat a ram in a fight, if you could get them to fight and how would you do that anyway. The seventh was a travelling barber surgeon, obvious from his pack, sitting in the corner, reading a book. As they came in, he stood up and stretched his back, put his book carefully in his large pack, and said in a London voice, "I'll pay you now, shall I, Tim?"
"Nae need, Mr Anricks, ye paid for more than your tab when ye drew my tooth for me."
"Are you sure? You paid me for it at the time."
"Ay, but I never lost a tooth before so nice and easy. I'll be telling ma dad about ye, that's sure, he's got a bad tooth too."
"Well thank you, I appreciate it. I'm for Edinburgh now and after I think I'll head west and see if there are any bad teeth in Dumfriesshire or even Carlisle."
"Bound to be, Mr Anricks. Me dad'll be waiting for when ye come back."
"Now mind what I tell you, the invisible worms that eat your teeth, they love sugar and honey and so if you scrub your teeth with a cloth and salt, that'll keep them away."
"Ay, and I'll keep the charm ye sold me too, that's even better."
"Hm. Good day to you."
"Clem!" bellowed Tim. "Bring Mr Anricks' pony round for him."
A boy leapt out from under the counter and pelted out the door and the tooth-drawer followed him out, moving a little stiffly, as if his back hurt.
"Ehm ..." said the older traveller, "good day to you." Everybody turned and looked. "That'll be two quarts, please."
This was an event. Two strangers coming into the alehouse. A smaller boy was staring from where he'd been whittling under the counter. The older man hated the feeling of being conspicuous, but you couldn't help it.
The quarts were drawn from the only barrel and the younger man paid, twice as much as usual on account of them being foreigners of course. That was all right, they had plenty of money.
After both had taken a drink, the older one said, "What's the name of this village?"
Several people answered and it seemed you could choose between Lesser Wendron or Minor or the old one of Wendron St Cuthberts.
"Ah. St Cuthberts," said the older man wisely, "would the minister here be a Mr Burn? A Mr James Burn?"
"Why?" asked the man at the bar, with narrow suspicious eyes.
"Well," said the older one, not looking at the younger one, "we're from a printer in Edinburgh to see about the printing of his sermons and selling them too."
This was what he had been told to say by his principal and he was happy to see it worked like a charm. The man might well have been suspicious, after all, and it would be so much easier if they could get him alone.
"Yes," said the barman, "that'd be the pastor." He wasn't at the alehouse which was a little odd for a pastor. What was more, he was at the manse and teaching the children.
The younger man choked on his beer. "Teaching?" he asked. "Why?"
This touched off a dispute. The dice players looked around and said it was all this new-fangled religion, the arguers agreed and sniggered about it, the barman said it was all very well learning your letters but then what could you do with it, the sleeper said nothing because he stayed asleep, and the man who was hunched over his quart straightened up and told them all that they were fools because the truth was in the Bible and the children would be able to read it for themselves, whereas they couldn't. One of the dice players snorted and said that was all very well and the truth might be in the Bible at that, but what was the use of it?
The older man cut through the talk and asked where the manse might be, and learned it was right behind the alehouse from the days when the alehouse was the church's and ran church ales.
Both men finished their ales, parried a couple of questions about where they came from. No need to send the boy with them, they could find the manse themselves from the sound of it.
They went out the door and round the back of the place and there, sure enough, was the manse, a handsome building of stone like the church, though perhaps older. It looked like part of it had once been something else, maybe a little house for monks or something.
The door flung open and twelve boys came pouring out, shouting and pummeling each other, two of them fell wrestling at the feet of the men. They stepped around the boys and spoke to the man standing at the door, smiling at them.
He bowed slightly and led them inside. The boys all scattered to their homes except for three who had planned a fishing expedition at the stream. A woman arrived in a hurry, and went in smiling. There was a quiet sound of talking, a woman's voice, a man's voice.
A pause. Then a sudden grunt, like a pig being stuck with a lance, a thump, then a sound like a cabbage being cut. Then the sound of a stifled scream, thumping and bumping and some muffled groans, going on for a while.
The two men walked out of the house, grinning and rearranging their hose and round the duck pond to where their horses were tethered. Unhurriedly they untied them, mounted and trotted away to the little copse nearby where they had some remounts and a boy guarding them.
Then they changed horses and went to a canter out of the copse and round by the little lanes that threaded across the countryside, although they could have crossed the ploughed fields in a straight line. As it happened they went north first on an errand and to throw anyone off the trail, and then they went south and west. The boy took the West March-branded horses straight south to a horse-trader.CHAPTER 2
friday morning 13th october 1592
Lady Widdrington looked at the farmer in front of her and waited for him to stop lying. The horses in question were nice beasts and she knew they were not local. The question was, where had they come from and had they been reived.
"Mr Tully," she said, "I've never seen the brands before. Where are they from?"
"They're Middle March horses, your ladyship," he said promptly. "Bought from my brother-in-law in Jedburgh."
She sighed. "Those aren't Jedburgh brands."
His face flinched a little and she read it easily. She was a woman; she wasn't supposed to know about brands. It had taken Elizabeth two years to know all the main brands and variations hereabouts, but she knew them now. In fact she wasn't completely sure she didn't know these particular brands, only she couldn't bring to mind which surname they belonged to, which was odd. They niggled her. Probably they came from the West March, Armstrong, Nixon, Graham? But they certainly weren't from Jedburgh and they were good horses. Not as good as Robin Carey's beautiful tournament charger Thunder, which he had sort of sold to the King of Scots that summer, but ...
She sighed and pressed her lips together. That familiar ache in her chest had started up again. It had been three and a half months since she saw him riding Thunder, tipping his hat to her seriously as he rode past. Less time since she saw him at the Scottish Court where ...
Mr Tully saw her face lengthen and become stern. It was a handsome face, rather than pretty, the long nose and chin would probably draw together eventually but hadn't yet. He drew a couple of wrong conclusions and decided she must be a witch.
"A' right," he said sadly, "they're no' from Jedburgh,"
"I know that," agreed Elizabeth.
"Fact is, I dinna ken where they're from. So now ..."
Elizabeth folded her gloved hands on the reins and leaned back slightly. Her horse tipped a hoof and gave a resigned snort.
"They were running loose in the woods."
She looked around her at the plump farms and copses. There weren't a lot of woods anywhere near.
"Aah ... in Scotland."
She could have asked what he was doing north of the Border, but she didn't. She nodded invitingly.
"Ay, I'd been north of Berwick getting ... ah ... getting supplies and up to Edinburgh forebye for I couldna find what I was looking for and I got lost in the wood meself and so I found 'em."
She waited patiently for him to start telling the truth. "They had nae tack on them or nae ither signs and they were sad and sorry for themselves, so they were, and when I found them they were hungry too ..."
Likely since these weren't tough little hobbies who could live on a couple of blades of grass a day, but taller bigger horses who would need more food.
"And one of them had thrown a shoe and the other was lame too, and so I brung them south with me to help and comfort them and that one's called Blackie ..."
"That's the grey?"
"Ay and that one's called Pinky."
"Ay," Tully looked at her cautiously. "It's a joke, ye ken, missus. Ah niver name my animals for their right colours."
Elizabeth nodded. Why else would the man be riding a beast as black as pitch and known to all as Milky?
One of the Widdrington cousins who was riding with her and waiting a little way off, chuckled softly.
Elizabeth moved her own horse, a very dull dark chestnut called Mouse for good and sufficient reasons, to a nearby stone wall. She unhooked her knee from the sidesaddle and stepped down to the wall, then picked up her skirts and climbed down the other side to go into the paddock with the horses. There were other animals dotted around the pasture, which was looking bare and brown. Among them were two billy kids, nearly grown and making themselves useful by calming the horses while awaiting their inevitable fate.
She went among the horses and patted them, felt their legs, lifted their feet — yes, they had been shod a while ago, though Tully hadn't re-shod them yet because that was expensive. She checked their teeth as well. Blackie, the grey, snickered with his lips and pushed his nose into her chest, looking for carrots, no doubt. She patted his neck and found Pinky on her other side also wanting attention.
"These are quite young and good horses," she said.
"Ay, ladyship," said Tully, looking at her sadly. "But I didna reive 'em."
"No," she agreed to his great surprise, "I don't think you did but you'll have to wait until I write to the Scotch Warden and ask about them." Tully sighed. "I'll try and get you a finder's fee for them if I can," she added since he had told her some of the truth eventually. and what he had been doing in Scotland was probably just smuggling and nothing worse.
"Or," she said thoughtfully, "I could take them off your hands now and give you something for them and then keep the fee if we find the owner."
Tully scratched the back of his head and looked at the sky scattered with clouds, though it was not raining yet. He was not a wealthy man and although there was horse feed available now, it would get short before spring because the harvest had been bad. The horses were geldings and she could put them to use, whereas he couldn't. On the other hand, the Borderers all loved horses, which she did herself, of course, and were ridiculously sentimental about them, too, when they could be.
Slowly Tully nodded. If the horses did turn out to have been reived in some way, the Widdrington surname would be better able to deal with that than Tully, who had come to the area from further south and only had two sons and a daughter.
"Ay," he said. "Ay, that's fair, my lady. I dinna need them, only they was there, ye ken."
"Of course." She smiled at him. "I can give you twenty shillings each or take it off your rent."
Tully nodded. It was less than the beasts were worth but not much less. It more or less split the difference between that and the risk that they would be trouble.
She came back across the field and climbed the stile, drew off her glove and spat in her palm to clap her hand to Tully's and shake on it.
"There's ma hand, there's ma heart," he said. "Ye can take 'em now if ye like. I trust ye."
"Do you want money or credit?"
"Oh money, missus."
She checked her purse which only had a couple of shillings in it.
"I'll send the reeve to you tomorrow."
Half an hour later she was riding back to Widdrington with the horses on rope halters and feeling quite pleased with the deal. They were nice horses with nothing obviously wrong with them, and she always needed horses for the eternal problem of dispatches. Sir Henry would probably tell her she should have paid less and he would probably find something else to complain about, but he knew they needed horses.
She took the horses up to a gallop along a little ridge of the road, feeling happy as she always did when she was riding. Sir Henry was in Berwick on Tweed doing his duty as a Deputy Warden. He would turn up to harass her at some stage but probably not yet because October was peak raiding season and he would be dealing with raiders from the Middle March or, indeed, doing a bit of raiding himself.
She came onto the Great North Road which actually passed through the village of Widdrington and cantered until she came to the stone tower and barnekin of her castle. Some of the women tidying gardens, or sitting on their doorsteps knitting or spinning, waved to her as she went by with her colour high and her hat pinned firmly to her cap so it didn't come off. She found Mr Heron, the reeve, up to his knees in a collapsed drainage ditch and asked if he would take forty shillings to Tully the next day. Heron smiled at her, came and examined the two new horses and said he thought they were worth forty shillings each, unless they had some kind of horse disease, of course. "I think they're healthy enough," Elizabeth said, "but we'll see."
Excerpted from A Chorus of Innocents by P. F. Chisholm. Copyright © 2015 P. F. Chisholm. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This superbly written historical novel set in the borderlands between Scotland and England during the year 1592 is so much more than just a mystery to be solved. The author’s words took me back in time, allowed me to experience with all of my senses what life might have been like in the late 1590’s and made me thankful that I live in the present. In this book Lady Elizabeth Widdrington has more time on center stage than Robert Carey and in some ways it is more her story than his, although, it is really a story of the time and its people and as such even more intriguing as it is based on real characters mixed in with some fictional ones. This may be a Robert Carey Mystery and the 7th in the series but it was the first book of the series that I have read. I am now eager to read the other six books even though they do not need to be read first to have this one make sense. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes well written fact-based historical fiction that provides a wonderful reading adventure. I want to thank NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book and in so doing allow me to find an author I will gladly read the work of again.
This seventh book in this wonderful series (beginning with A Famine of Horses) contains all the elements one expects in a P.F. Chisholm book: humor, well-constructed mysteries, fully developed characters (even secondary characters), action-adventure, and total immersion in a completely believable (and well-researched) historical period. Carey and Henry Dodd are back on the English-Scottish border, and Elizabeth Widdrington has a larger role than usual, which lets the reader see more of what everyday life was like for women (and children) on the Border, a particularly welcome addition. A major character from another Chisholm series (the acclaimed trilogy, Unicorn's Blood, Firedrake's Eye, and Gloriana's Torch, written under her real name, Patricia Finney) has a guest role here (as Carey has a minor role there), and it's nice to see an old "friend." This series is especially recommended for those who like historical mysteries to be authentic, and this book in particular was inspired by real events. As Chisholm says in the Historical Note, the final scene is taken almost straight from Carey's memoirs. But it's the humor that most sets this series apart from others of its genre. As usual, the funniest moments belong to Dodd. For example, after seeing teeth pulled, he reflects, "Teeth weren't meant to be black or brown, they were meant to be yellow" - which also is a typical example of how Chisholm effortlessly puts the reader into the 16th century! My favorite line, though, was when Dodd "hoped no one would wake him because burying people took time and was a lot of effort."