Roger the Chapman is not a superstitious man. He hears stories of murders and haunted houses around the market town of Bristol, and chooses to believe the more prosaic explanation every time. But when Roger is attacked in the very house where a woman murdered her violent husband thirty years previously, he is forced to admit that something strange is going on . . .
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The Midsummer Rose
By Kate Sedley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2004 Kate Sedley
All rights reserved.
I could see the house where the murders had been committed from where I was waiting, on the opposite side of the river Avon. It was visible because it was two-storeyed and stood some distance from the other cottages that formed the hamlet of Rownham Passage, on a muddy spur of rock that was washed by the river at full tide.
Surprisingly for one who was not a native of Bristol, I knew its history. It had been one of the stories told to me by my long-dead first wife, Lillis Walker, and for some reason it had stuck in my memory.
Fifty years and more ago, two women – a mother and daughter who had lived there – had hacked to death the tyrannical husband and father of the household, throwing his mutilated body into the river. Unfortunately for them, the corpse had been trapped by those underwater rocks that make the Avon such a treacherous river to navigate, and instead of being carried out into the Severn estuary on the receding tide, it had floated on the next incoming tide right into the heart of the city. In due course the two women had been arrested, tried, found guilty and suffered the horrible fate of being burned alive ...
'You waitin' for this bleedin' ferry or not, then?' enquired an irate voice that made me jump.
The ferryman had returned from the opposite shore and beached his skiff on the narrow mudflat skirting the towering escarpment behind us – an escarpment that reduced human life to dwarfish proportions. Similarly, on the other side of the river, Ghyston Cliff made the huddle of cottages at its foot look like a handful of toys tossed down by a careless giant.
'You goin' to stand 'ere all bleedin' day?' demanded the ferryman, growing ever more frustrated by my lack of response. 'There's a storm brewin'.' He nodded towards a bank of dark clouds, marring the perfection of a warm, early-June morning.
'Sorry,' I apologized, heaving my pack and cudgel into the skiff and seating myself in the stern. 'How much?'
'Penny.' The ferryman took the oars, looking me up and down in a disparaging sort of way. 'Although for a chap as big and heavy as you, it ought to be more. You're a weight, you are.'
'Blame my wife. She feeds me too well.'
The man grunted as he pulled away from the Somerset shore and the Lordship of Ashton-Leigh.
'Leg-shackled, are you? You look married. Any children?'
'Three,' I admitted with a sigh. 'A daughter from my first marriage. She'll be five in November. And a stepson a few weeks older. Then there's Adam.' I tried to sound cheerful. 'He'll celebrate his first birthday at the end of this month. He's my child by my second wife.'
The ferryman looked sympathetic – or as sympathetic as his gnarled and weather-beaten features permitted.
'One, eh? That's a terrible age for any child to be. I should know! I've fathered six of the varmints. Girls ain't so bad, but boys!' He cast up his eyes to heaven, where they remained riveted. 'Them dang clouds, they'm blowing inland fast. There's going to be a real storm very soon.' He indicated my pack with a jerk of his head. 'You a pedlar?'
I nodded. 'I've been as far as Woodspring Priory and back. Now I'm heading home to Bristol. I intended to walk the landward way round to the Redcliffe Gate, but when I found myself close to the river, I thought I might as well take the ferry. So, here I am.' I gazed up at the cliffs rearing above us. 'Pity someone couldn't build a bridge up there,' I remarked idly. 'It would save travellers from Leigh to Clifton a great deal of time and effort.'
The ferryman snorted. 'Are you mad or what? No one could build a bridge at that height.'
He was right, of course, but I was reluctant to relinquish my dream so easily. 'It might happen one day,' I argued. 'Centuries hence perhaps, when you and I are long dead.'
He showed me the whites of his eyes. 'You ain't one of them heretics, are you? Lollards, or whatever they call 'em?'
'I'm a good son of the Holy Church,' I protested.
But wasn't I being a little disingenuous? Weren't many of my secret beliefs and theories more in tune with the followers of John Wycliffe than with orthodox teachings? But I knew it was as well to keep a still tongue in my head on that score. Nowadays I was not only a family man, but also had the additional responsibility of being a householder, thanks to the almost unbelievable generosity of a sweet, dead friend who the previous year had left me her house in Small Street. Me! Roger the Chapman, who had never lived in anything better or bigger than a rented, one-roomed cottage in his life, and had never expected to do so until the day he died!
My good fortune had at first caused a lot of resentment in Bristol, particularly among my erstwhile friends, very few of whom had seemed happy for my wife Adela and me. Even Margaret Walker, my quondam mother-in-law and Adela's cousin, had been restrained in her congratulations, predicting that this result of my former (totally innocent) association with Mistress Cicely Ford would set the gossips' tongues wagging. But, ten months on, my wife and I had largely overcome all the unpleasantness by simply ignoring it and remaining our normal polite, imperturbable selves. Well, Adela had. And although I might have been forced to black Burl Hodge's eye in an effort to knock some sense into him, and to encourage my dog, Hercules, to bite the backside of a neighbour who openly objected to riff-raff such as my family and myself moving into Small Street, on the whole I had managed to behave with the propriety that became a man of property. And today, I could anticipate returning to a home that boasted not merely a hall, parlour, kitchen and three bedchambers, but also a buttery. Not that we needed such a room – only a modest amount of wine was drunk in our household, ale and small beer being cheaper – but the children found it useful for playing in, using the bottle racks as places to keep their toys.
The skiff scraped and bumped ashore at Rownham Passage and the ferryman berthed his oars, jumping out first in order to help me unload my belongings. I followed and paid him his fare.
'What did you mean,' I asked suspiciously, 'when you said I "looked married"?'
The man shrugged, paying more attention to the weather and the rapidly darkening sky than to me.
'Dunno,' he answered vaguely. 'But you can always tell ... 'Ere! I'm taking cover. Don't want to be caught mid-river in this lot.' A few drops of rain spattered the Avon's mudbanks as he spoke. 'An' if you've got any sense, chapman, you'll find shelter, too. This is going to be a nasty little squall.'
'Pooh! A shower doesn't bother me,' I boasted. 'I'm used to being abroad in all kinds of weather.'
The ferryman laughed and, with a rough word of explanation to his waiting fare – a fat woman dressed in grey homespun and carrying a large basket of eggs – hurried towards the alehouse perched just above the high-water mark and surrounded by the cluster of houses that was Rownham Passage. I, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction, along the narrow riverside track that skirted the base of Saint Brendan's Hill.
Suddenly the heavens opened and a violent gust of wind almost knocked me off my feet. The reeds fringing the river were lashed by spray and flurries of rain hit the path in front of me. In a few moments, everything seemed to have disintegrated into one deafening, wind-torn shriek.
I cursed my stupidity in not listening to the ferryman and for allowing my bravado to get the better of my common sense. But I had no time to dwell on the matter. I needed to take cover, and it was with relief that I saw, through the curtain of rain, a hovel of some sort, standing close to the track.
As soon as I opened the door, the pungent smell of horses greeted me, accompanied by the whinnying and shifting of two sets of hooves. Now, horses and I have never got on: they know I'm nervous of them and so they treat me with the contempt they think I deserve. Moreover, these two were obviously unsettled by the weather. I withdrew hurriedly, latching the door behind me.
The storm was at its height. I was soaked to the skin and my need for shelter was pressing. I was just screwing up my courage to take refuge with the animals after all, when I noticed a house standing a few yards nearer to the river bank than its attendant outbuilding. It was the 'murder' house, which had reportedly remained empty ever since the crime, but which was now showing a light in one of its downstairs windows.
At least, I thought I could see a light, and that was good enough for me. I dashed across the stretch of wind-bleached grass dividing the rocky promontory from the Saint Brendan's track, to discover that there was indeed a candle flame glimmering behind the parchment panes of a small back window. I fought my way around to the front of the house, which faced the river, and hammered as hard as I could on the door.
Somewhat to my surprise, my knocking was answered almost immediately by a woman who held the door open wide and urged me inside. I needed no second bidding.
I found myself in a short, narrow passageway with a flight of stairs at the far end and, to my right, another door which led into a small, barely furnished parlour. Indeed, one of the things I remembered later was the all-pervasive smell of must and damp indicative of a house little used and from which light and air are largely excluded. But at the time, events moved so fast and so unexpectedly that I was unable to register anything with clarity.
'We didn't think you'd be here just yet,' the woman said. She sounded edgy, nervous, as though the arrival of whoever it was she had mistaken me for was unwelcome. 'We thought you would have sought shelter during this storm.'
I was vaguely aware of movements overhead. Someone was upstairs. This accounted for the 'we' she had referred to.
I pushed my dripping hair out of my eyes, propped my cudgel against the wall, dropped my pack beside it and tried in vain to brush the rain from the front of my sodden jerkin.
'Look, I don't know who you think I am,' I began, but the woman ignored me.
As she brushed past to stare out of the window, I was aware of a pleasant-featured, strongly marked face and a well built figure, taller than average for a woman. Suddenly she uttered a sharp cry and beckoned me to join her.
'Come and look at this!' she whispered urgently. 'Hurry!'
Bewildered, I followed her to the window and peered through the dirty parchment which showed me nothing beyond the fact that it was coated with the grime of many years.
'What is it?' I demanded irritably. 'There's nothing there. And if there were, you couldn't see it through all this muck.'
The woman had left my side and was now behind me – again, something I realized later. Much later.
'There's something you must understand.' I tried again. 'I'm not —'
I can't even remember feeling the blow with which she felled me.
I had no idea how long I had been unconscious, but guessed it could not have been for any length of time; perhaps no more than a minute or two. I experienced no confusion of thought as I came to my senses, nor any difficulty in recalling what had happened or where I was.
I was lying where I had fallen, the dust on the floor tickling the back of my nose and throat and making me want to sneeze. I controlled the impulse, realizing that my best hope of eventually overpowering my assailant rested in the element of surprise. She probably thought she was stronger than she really was, and would pride herself on laying me out for some considerable time. But she would soon learn her mistake.
Meanwhile, I had a throbbing headache to contend with and, worse than that, the even greater pain of wounded vanity, for I had been struck down with my very own cudgel! Cautiously opening one eye, it was the first thing I saw, lying a couple of feet or so away. I cursed myself for every kind of a fool. It was all very well arguing that I could not possibly have foreseen what was coming; that I had no reason to suspect that danger lurked. But I had guessed from the start that I had been mistaken for someone else. That, if no other reason, should have put me on my guard. Furthermore, the unfurnished appearance of the house, coupled with the smell of damp and decay, should have alerted my senses to the fact that something was amiss. Instead, I had been preoccupied with my own discomfort. It served me right.
The storm seemed to have passed, in the abrupt way that such summer squalls so often do. The rain had ceased drumming against the window and a ray of sunshine was once more struggling to illumine the filthy panes. I could hear seagulls noisily foraging for food along the mudflats of the Avon.
Someone else had come into the room. Another woman. Presumably the person who had earlier been moving about upstairs. Opening my eyes the merest slit, I was just in time to see the hem of a blue brocade gown sweep past me and, beneath, the flash of red leather shoes. This was not my attacker, who was wearing a gown of much plainer, darker material, although I had had little opportunity to register it in any detail. But it had definitely not gleamed with the richness of brocade, of that I was certain. Who, then, was this?
Then a man's voice spoke from somewhere behind me. Whoever he was, he must have entered the house while I was unconscious.
'What are we going to do with him? Toss him in the river?'
It dawned on me with sickening clarity that I was in a far more serious situation than I had previously imagined. It was not just one woman I had to deal with. It was not even two. It was three people, one of whom was male and might be armed.
The thought had barely entered my aching head when he spoke again, confirming my worst fears.
'I'll use my knife. Finish him off.'
There was something foreign about his speech, some peculiarity that I could not quite place. French? Breton? Cornish? I didn't think so, but what the accent was, I was unable to say. In any case, there was no time for such considerations. I was in imminent danger of being murdered.
The first woman moved back into my line of vision and I hastily closed my eyes, but not before I had glimpsed several inches of brown sarcenet skirt and the end of a black leather girdle tipped with a silver tag studded with turquoises. Whoever she was, she was a woman of substance. Possibly also a woman of sense and education. I trusted that she was about to speak up in my defence.
'I suppose that might be the safest way to get rid of him.'
So much for the gentleness and mercy of the opposite sex! I should have known better; women can be far more ruthless than men. I tensed my muscles ready to sell my life as dearly as possible. I would not go under without a fight ...
'The door was unlatched, so I just walked in,' announced yet another male voice. This one had an Irish lilt to it, the soft brogue of southern Ireland, around Waterford. I had heard it often during my years of living in Bristol.
There was an astounded silence. I can recognize total amazement even when my head is pounding fit to burst.
'Who ... Who are you?' my assailant quavered as soon as she managed to find her tongue.
'Who do you think I am? I'm Eamonn Malahide of course. Who else are you expecting?'
Once more, I let my eyes flicker open. I could safely wager that no one would be looking at me.
Where there had been brown sarcenet and the hint of a shapely leg beneath, was now a huge pair of feet encased in worn but substantial leather boots with thick, hobnailed soles – excellent, I surmised, for kicking people to the ground and, afterwards, trampling them underfoot. Above the boots, a stout pair of legs were shrouded in thick frieze breeches such as seafaring men wear. I dared raise my eyelids no further for fear of revealing that I was awake, but the two hands dangling loosely by the man's side were as big as shovels, and one had a ship pricked out in woad on the back of it, with the word Clontarf underneath.
'C–Captain Malahide?' stammered the woman who had let me in. 'But ... but we thought ...'
'What did you think?' The seaman was growing uneasy. I could hear it in his voice and could see it in the sudden shuffle of his feet on the dusty floor. At that point he must have noticed me for the first time. 'Who's this?' he demanded suspiciously.
I decided the moment had come to put the cat among the pigeons. It didn't take much brainpower to work out the situation, even when that brain felt as though it had been pounded to a pulp. I dragged myself up on to one elbow.
Excerpted from The Midsummer Rose by Kate Sedley. Copyright © 2004 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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