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The Green Man
By Kate Sedley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2008 Kate Sedley
All rights reserved.
It seemed a day like any other. Or as much like any other as days had been for the past nine months. For the autumn and winter just gone had been two of the worst seasons in living memory.
It had started the previous August with tearing gales and lashing rain, ruining the crops as they stood, unharvested, in the fields, and not letting up until late October. But when the wind and wet finally died away, it was only to give place to early frosts so severe that they turned the ground to iron; and by Christmas heavy falls of snow blanketed the countryside. Vegetables rotted in the earth, and those that were, with Herculean effort and broken spade-handles, eventually lifted into the light of day, were so blighted by disease, and so stunted, as to be barely worth the effort. On the other hand, people had to live – or try to – and any effort was better than starvation. For, of course, it goes without saying that famine, blood brother to storms and subsequent bad harvests, stalked the land from north to south, east to west. Meat, too, was scarce, cattle and sheep having succumbed to the biting cold, dying where they stood in the open fields as they struggled to survive. What hay and grain herdsmen had managed to lay their hands on, soon ran out or was commandeered for the troops mustering somewhere – or so we were told – in Yorkshire and Northumberland, ready to repel invasion by the Scots.
Our northern neighbours had been causing trouble along the marches for some two or three years now, and rumours of proposed retaliation had even become a common talking point in our south-western fastness, where what went on in the border country between England and Scotland was usually a matter of supreme indifference to us. Indeed, what transpired in France had more immediacy for Bristolians – although, admittedly, only a very little. Our preoccupation was always with Ireland, and the love-hate, friend-foe relationship that existed between us (you will note that after all those years living in the place I had at last begun to count myself a citizen) and the men of Waterford and the southern Irish coast.
However, as I have said, it was Scotland – a country generally as remote to your average southerner as the moon – that was one of the two main topics of conversation in the Green Lattis alehouse on that early May evening in the year of Our Lord, 1482. The other topic, it goes without saying, was what, if anything, our wives and goodies would have managed to scrounge, beg or borrow for our suppers; for as we had moved into the new year at the end of March, nothing much had changed. Food was as difficult to come by as ever.
My old friend, Jack Nym, was looking particularly gloomy. Goody Nym's meals were something to be avoided at the best of times and the scarcity of victuals had proved a godsend to her; an excuse to serve up nothing but mouldy bread and a few even mouldier vegetables. Kind-hearted neighbours shared their own meagre meals with the carter and his wife, taking pity on Jack's rumbling belly.
'What's your woman giving you for supper tonight, then?' he asked me, staring gloomily into his beaker of ale.
'Oh, Adela will have contrived something or another,' I answered with slightly more confidence than I actually felt.
But my wife was a good manager and a shrewd housewife who had her regular contacts among the stallholders of the city market. Always polite, always a prompt payer, they were willing to provide her with any extra titbits or savoury morsels that their own womenfolk had rejected. Nevertheless, the constant recurrence of a brown stew made from bones and bits of offal, flavoured with the herbs Adela had picked and dried the previous summer, was beginning to pall. For a good trencherman like myself, it was an affront to a hearty appetite.
'I'm losing weight,' I grumbled. 'I had to take my belt in another notch this morning.'
'Consider yourself lucky to have a belt,' remarked a stranger – a travelling mummer judging by the cap and bells he had just thrown down on the bench beside him – who had joined our table, squeezing on to the recently vacated stool next to Jack. (The inn was packed to suffocation with people, like myself, drowning their worries and sorrows.) He went on, 'In some parts o' the country, they're boiling 'em and eating the leather.'
'Pooh!' said Jack. 'D'you expect us to believe that? Go rattle yer bells in someone else's ears.'
The mummer took a long draught of ale and then slammed his beaker back on the table.
'Think I'm joking, do you? Mother o' God! You lot down here don't know you're born! Think you're hard done by? You know nothing! Nothing! It's twice, three times as bad in London and down into Kent. But further north! Dear God in Heaven! People are dying like flies in summer. In places, the ground's still so hard, they can't bury the dead. The charnel-houses are full and likely to remain so until the weather changes. This bit o' May sunshine and warmth you been gettin' these few days past ain't even reached as far as Gloucester yet. I was there yesterday with my friends.' And he jerked his head in the direction of a settle set against the wall where a couple of other mummers sat, gaily bedecked, but with faces as long as sin, glumly supping their ale. 'We did a bit of mumming on the abbey green, but folk didn't want to know.' He jiggled the purse at his belt, but there was no comforting, responsive chink. 'Empty!' he informed us. Our new acquaintance threw a few coins on the table. 'That's all our worldly wealth, my friends. It's the abbey dormitory for us tonight, and some black bread and broth from the monks' kitchen.' He glanced about him. 'Same story here by the looks o' things. Doom and gloom. Doom and more gloom. Have you had any riots yet?'
'Riots?' Jack and I asked, almost in one breath. 'Where has there been rioting? And who's been rioting?' I added.
'Everyone, everywhere,' was the comprehensive answer, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. 'There's a mort of unrest all over the country.'
It was my turn to shrug. 'Well, I suppose that isn't so surprising if conditions are as bad as you say.'
'It ain't only conditions brought about by the weather,' he retorted. 'Wages are falling, especially in sheep farming country.' He took another swig of ale and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. 'It's this war between France and Burgundy that's half the trouble. More than half.'
I took a closer look at him. The mummer had a broken nose and bright, inquisitive eyes set in a small, shrewd face with, I suspected, an even shrewder brain behind it. Most of his calling had no interest in anything beyond shaking their bells, waggling their staves and earning enough by their antics to keep body and soul together. But this man was different: he evidently took a lively interest in what was going on around him, listened to what people said and had sense enough to add two and two and come up with the answer four.
Not so Jack Nym.
'Wha's it got to do with France and Burgundy?' he demanded truculently. He had all your average Englishman's contempt for anything that went on outside of his own borders.
Our companion looked down his nose, squinting into his empty beaker. 'War's going badly for Burgundy,' he said. 'People reckon we ought to be going to the aid of Duchess Mary and her husband. There's a lot o' bad feeling against King Edward that he won't send troops to assist the Hapsburg.'
'Why?' Jack's tone was more belligerent than ever. He was slightly drunk, and that always made him aggressive.
'Oh, for pity's sake, think man!' I exclaimed, irritated, before the mummer had a chance to reply. 'This country relies on Burgundy to buy vast quantities of our wool and woven goods. It's one of our best markets in the whole of Europe. Furthermore, our own Princess Margaret is its Dowager Duchess.'
Jack gave due consideration to this argument, then nodded in agreement. He was well aware from his experience as a carter that this was true. He switched sides.
'Then why don't the King do summat about it? Why don't he send men to aid Maximilian?'
'Because,' I reminded him, at the same time signalling to a passing pot-boy to refill our beakers and also that of the mummer, 'Edward receives a big, fat, annual pension from King Louis – as do a number of his friends and cronies – and my guess is that he can't afford to lose it. Which he surely would if he intervened in the war on Burgundy's behalf.'
'Still,' Jack objected, 'if not doing so is making him unpopular ... if people are rioting, as our friend here says they are, you'd think ...'
'Money's money,' I pointed out. 'Especially when you have all your wife's family to support. The Woodvilles are a rapacious lot by all I've ever heard of them.'
The mummer nodded. 'By all anybody's ever heard o' them,' he concurred. 'And then there's all the king's doxies and by-blows making claims on him, as well.' He looked across the table at me. 'I'm with you, friend. I don't reckon King Edward'll be raising any troops. Leastways, not to send to Burgundy.'
'But somewhere?' I queried. 'Where then?'
He grimaced. 'Scotland's my guess. There were fighting up north, on and off, all last year.' He jerked his head backwards at his two dozy companions, now both half asleep, one dribbling ale from the corner of his mouth, the other just beginning to snore with an even, gentle rhythm. 'We was way up last summer, over the border in fact, before the start of this terrible weather drove us southwards in a hurry. We was near Edinburgh when Lord Howard sailed the English fleet up the River Forth and burned one o' their Scottish towns to the ground. Blackness, I think they called it – although it ain't easy to know what those heathenish bastards call anything, the way they mangle the English tongue. And o' course, that was another reason we had to leave Scotland in double quick time. We Saxons – Sassenachs is their word for it – weren't popular to begin with, but after Lord Howard's little foray, as you might guess, we were lucky to escape with our lives.'
'Is the Duke of Gloucester involved in any of this?' I asked, my thoughts naturally turning towards that member of the royal family I not only respected and knew well – I didn't refer to this as it would surely have raised more questions and answers than I was prepared to be troubled with – but whose birthday and age I also shared.
'Oh lord, yes!' The mummer was emphatic. 'As it so happened, both he and the king were at Nottingham when we passed through there last October. There was no official announcement, but all the townsfolk we spoke to said it was to do with the war in Scotland. In fact, it was only a few weeks later when we fell in with a travelling tinker who'd come from the Scottish marches who told us that Berwick has been put under siege.'
'Where's this Berwick?' Jack wanted to know. For once, I couldn't air my superior knowledge. I didn't know, either.
'Scotland,' our acquaintance informed us kindly with a condescending smile. (We were so obviously west country turnips with very little experience of the wider world.) 'Right on the border. Mind you, until about twenty years ago, it was English.'
'So how did them Scots buggers get hold of it?' Jack demanded, jutting his jaw pugnaciously. 'Some dopey garrison commander let them in?'
But on this head, the mummer was unable to satisfy our curiosity. So I'll set down here what I learned later; that two decades previously, the late King Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, fleeing from the victorious Yorkist army, fetched up in Scotland and bartered Berwick for Scottish aid. Now, I presumed – correctly as it turned out – King Edward wanted it back; a sop to those of his many subjects who thought him a mercenary coward not to go to Burgundy's aid.
'Ah, well,' said Jack, scratching himself and disturbing his fleas, 'if it's that far away, there's nothing to worry us.'
'Nothing at all,' I agreed.
I really should have known better than to tempt fate. And I should certainly have known better than to treat us all to yet another beaker of ale. Money was scarce and getting scarcer as people saved what little they had for necessities instead of the frippery inessentials of a pedlar's pack. True, I continued to do a reasonable trade in needles, thread, laces and suchlike articles; but the items that really brought in the money – gloves, lengths of silk, the occasional copper or silver ring, picked up cheap and sold at a profit – now remained unsold week after week. As I have already mentioned, Adela was a clever housewife and had always been able to make one groat do the work of two when needed. And, indeed, during the past five years, since her marriage to me, this particular skill had been much in demand, but never so much as now when even early May had brought little relief to the sun-starved land. But a third beaker of ale, shared with convivial friends and strangers in the Green Lattis, made life appear a little rosier, a trifle more tolerable, than it had done before.
But all good things must come to an end. Our new-found acquaintance, the mummer, announced that he must be on his way, roused his two companions from their drunken slumber and asked for directions to St Augustine's Abbey. Jack thanked me for my generosity, but regretted that he was unable to stop any longer and return the compliment as his goody would be expecting him home for supper. (Goody Nym was never expecting him, and I doubted if she knew what supper was, but my sneer, indicating the belief that this was a blatant lie, was carefully ignored.) In a shorter time than it takes to tell, I found myself deserted, sitting alone at our table, ruefully counting the depleted contents of my purse and sobering rapidly.
A small, but determined hand clutched my sleeve and shook my arm. I turned in some astonishment to discover my seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, standing beside me.
'Bess?' I queried.
She gave me a leery glance which plainly proclaimed that she thought me as drunk as a wheelbarrow.
'Who else could it be?' she demanded impertinently. 'Do I look like another person?'
I might resent her manner, but I knew full well it was useless me trying to enact the Roman father. I could never sustain the role.
'Just tell me what you're doing here before I lose my temper,' I instructed her sharply.
'Mother sent me to fetch you,' she answered, totally impervious to the threat of paternal anger, and adding reproachfully, 'She guessed I might find you in the alehouse, and I have.'
I frowned. It was unlike Adela, however much she disapproved of my wasting money in such places at a time when it was sorely needed for other things, to send one of the children to winkle me out. She was a tolerant woman and an indulgent wife who would never put me in an awkward situation if she could possibly avoid it. (I noted a couple of grinning faces at a nearby table, and cursed under my breath.)
'So what does your mother want?' I asked, loudly enough for my fellow drinkers to understand that I was being called home for a specific purpose and not simply because my wife considered me to be malingering.
But my darling daughter refused to play my game.
'I don't know,' she replied, getting ready to leave, with or without me. 'She just said that I was to fetch you home if I found you.'
I settled myself more firmly on my stool.
'Something must have happened,' I argued sulkily. 'Otherwise, she wouldn't have sent you looking for me.'
Elizabeth sighed. She was a bright child and observed a great deal more than one imagined. She knew me in this recalcitrant schoolboy mood, and guessed that without further information I would dig in my heels and refuse to move. She pondered a moment or two, staring at me thoughtfully.
'Well, I don't know for certain,' she said at last, 'but it might have something to do with that funny little man who called at the house earlier this afternoon. About an hour or so ago.'
'What funny little man?' All my senses were suddenly alert to potential danger.
My daughter shrugged irritably. 'How do I know? I just caught a glimpse of him when Mother answered the door.' She creased her brow in an effort of recollection. 'I think I might have seen him before, though.'
'Where? When?' I had a sudden nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.
'I can't remember. A long time ago.' Elizabeth ran out of patience and stamped her foot. 'Why don't you just come home, Father, and find out for yourself?'
It was the obvious solution, but my uneasiness was growing, although it would have been difficult for me to say quite why.
'Did your mother recognize this man?' I enquired, catching hold of Elizabeth's skirt to prevent her leaving.
'She must have done,' was the answer. 'She let him inside. He went into the parlour with her and I heard them talking. Mother said you weren't home and the man said he'd wait. He said it was urgent.'
'Is he still there?'
Excerpted from The Green Man by Kate Sedley. Copyright © 2008 Kate Sedley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hmmm, This book was harder to get through than some of the other Roger the Chapman mysteries. The topic was, more often than not, usually about food, eating, "shitting" and "pissing." The author spent more time teasing the reader that there was something "mysterious" and dangerous about the Green Man than fleshing out the plot.
One reason I like reading series in order, even when each book stands on its own, is that I like to watch the writer improve, as he or she almost invariably does. This is the first of the Chapman series in which I didn't guess the solution of the mystery almost from the beginning. I must admit that I tend to guess the solution less by my logic and puzzle-solving abilities than by my sense of literary convention--you know, "there's only one lesbian; she's probably the murderer," "we're only halfway through the novel, therefore this suspect probably isn't the guilty one," "this suspect was the first but had an alibi, so it'll probably be disproven," that sort of stuff. As the hints about The Green Man begann to accumulate, however, and especially after Roslyn Chapel was mentioned, I began to suspect where the plot was tending, although not the particulars of its climax. The next novel in the series is even better at keeping me guessing, and the one after that, better yet. But whether I guess the solution or not, I find history easier to learn when it's the setting for a novel, and have enjoyed the whole series enough to give it three stars; with The Green Man, the novels start earning a bit more.