“An entity that changes in character gradually or in very slight stages without any clear dividing points.”
Stanwood House is a continuum – a changeless core within an outer contour of unhurried evolution. Once it had been a Jacobean gentleman’s residence; once a fortified mediaeval mansion; once maybe even an Anglo Saxon long house although no trace of this remains. Little endures today of the mediaeval mansion and the only traces of the Jacobean house that can now be found are in the servants’ quarters on the east wing where the graceful, high-curling, red brick chimneys are encased within Georgian limestone.
The inhabitants of Stanwood House are enmeshed within this continuum – Smythe family members arriving at birth in the Lady’s Bedchamber and departing at death to the vault in St Laurence’s church in the village. It took generations for their characters to imprint themselves on the fabric of their domain, for estate workers and villagers to note family resemblances, for archetypes to present themselves to their collective unconscious.
Early in the year 1886 a son, Dudley, was born to Augustus, the tenth Lord Smythe of Stanwood. Perhaps it was his mother’s death in childbirth that caused Dudley to turn out as he did; perhaps it was his father’s grieving, his emotional and often physical absence. But without doubt there was one event that did more than any other to alter his life’s course – the birth of his half-sister, Flora, thirteen years later in 1898. It was the combination of her mother, her birth and her association with the villager, Will Cobley, that caused the first crack in the fabric of the eight hundred year continuum and triggered a sequence of events that were to last for half a century – to 1940 and beyond.
Sunday 1st December
My daughter, my Flora.
It is the first day of the last month of this year. The awful war finally is over and today is the day I promised myself I would start this letter. You may ask why on earth I would write to you now after so many years of silence? Well the truth is that last week I came across a copy of The Times newspaper dating from April of this year in which I saw a brief mention of the court martial of an army officer. His name was all too well known to me and brought back once again the terrible fears for your safety that I have carried with me for the last nineteen years. But it also stirred in me the first, faint hope that your life might now be safe and that the greatest wish of my life could be realised: that I would see you again, that I would learn about your life, that I would see if you had grown into the woman I have always imagined. But will I ever dare post this letter to you? Will receipt of such a letter put you back in the way of danger again? By the time I have finished this missive I will know what I have to do, but for the moment, I beg for your patience as I tell you my story.
And please know one thing above all at the very start of this letter, my Flora: I loved you from the second I held you in my arms after your birth. The pain of childbirth was forgotten instantly when I looked down into your dear little face; so beautiful, with your soft brown eyes scarcely able to focus and your long, long eyelashes and the downy hair across your head that I loved to stroke: and your hands – your tiny, perfect hands. You gripped my forefinger immediately when I held it out to you. And you never cried, not even when you wanted feeding.
I want to tell you so much about my life, my Flora: and even just the simple act of writing your name brings with it so many different emotions. Your father chose the name, as he knew the Scots reference would please his mother, Lady Chichester. I hope it did as I think it to be a most beautiful name. But dare I even call you “My” Flora? To me you always will be mine, but I do not know if you have even heard my name mentioned. I dread the idea that you might hate me, but I need, sooner or later, to tell you what happened and why. For now though I try to imagine what you might like to know about me – where I was born, how I grew up, why I came to Stanwood House.
Well, I shall start at the beginning: first and foremost I was not born into wealth. My father was a schoolteacher in a village in Rutland. The wages were poor, but we were able to live in the schoolhouse, which at least meant that we had no rent to pay. The children he taught were just like village schoolchildren everywhere I suppose, educated until they could be turned out to labour in the fields or the mines, whereas I continued my education until I reached eighteen. By then my father had ensured I could speak and read Latin, Greek, French and German and could manage some quite complex arithmetic. I had read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Milton and Pope and then for my own pleasure, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. How I loved ‘Ivanhoe’. I had read and re-read my copy until the pages were worn and torn. Do you like to read, Flora? I am sure you do, although it was perhaps literature that was the cause of my downfall for, picture if you will, a girl of simple origin whose imagination was filled with tales of romance and derring-do, whose vanity was such that she felt estranged from the village life around her – one step above her parents, two or three above the villagers, but maybe only just below the denizens of the Big House. And it was there that I went just before my nineteenth birthday to become a tutor to the landowner’s two young daughters. The girls were fifteen and seventeen, barely younger than me – empty headed and vain beyond belief. Vain I may have been as well, my Flora, but ignorant and unaware I most certainly was not. I realised almost immediately, with a sense of acute embarrassment, that I was far more than half-a-step below these girls. And they in turn, of course, were whole staircases below the aristocracy.
This, however, all changed one afternoon in the autumn of 1898 when the arrival of a certain Lady Moira Burkett-Smythe, the dowager countess of Chichester, set the whole household in a spin. For myself I used the visit as an opportunity to retire to my room and read in peace. So there I was, buried so deep in the novel, Middlemarch, by the wholly admirable George Eliot that I did not even hear the door of my room open. I only noticed the presence of another person when a tap on my shoulder made me start in shock. I apologised and curtsied immediately, realising that this must be Lady Chichester.
Her ladyship studied me for a while, asking sharp and pointed questions about my family background and learning and then informed me that she was on the hunt for a tutor who could educate her grandson, The Honourable Dudley Smythe, a twelve year old boy whom even she described as difficult. Her enquiries had led her across the county boundary from Northants into Rutland where she had, to my astonishment, heard mention of my name. I almost literally jumped at this chance not caring if the “difficult” boy had two heads and could neither read nor write. For me this would mean a move to the house of an aristocrat, the house, indeed, of Lord Augustus Smythe, younger brother of the Earl of Chichester – Stanwood House.
With all the love in the world,
The World Turned Upside Down Pub, Raunds, Northamptonshire
Friday 18th May
Flora Smythe ran back into the stables behind the pub as the horse shrieked, its hooves cutting the air over the frightened men. They ran too – ducking for cover into the rear door of the pub, the lane, anywhere but proximity to those metal edged weapons. The horse whinnied once more, screaming out its rage at a world of whips and spurs and reins and stupid, ignorant, cruel riders. The stable yard was almost empty now. Flora peered out over the half door, her jaw dropping in amazement. A single boy remained, standing still, straight, unafraid, clicking his teeth then talking soft, kind words to the terrifying, terrified animal. The boy walked forward, hand outstretched. The horse dropped onto its front hooves, panting, watchful, ready to fight once more, ready to run, ready for anything, but more than anything, ready for the calm, gentle voice of the boy with the outstretched hand, talking to it softly in words only it understood. Heads began to appear, the landlord first, then the ostler, not the rider – never the rider. The pub landlord turned to the ostler, Fred Cobley.
“Your boy – him and horses, Fred. They go together. They trust him.”
They both watched the lad who was now stroking the horse’s muzzle and still talking to it gently. The landlord walked forward and patted him on the shoulder. “Will, my boy, you’ve got a feel for ’em, ain’t you. Thanks, lad. Thanks indeed.”
The boy looked at him and nodded, not really listening, still feeling for the horse’s mind. “You should tell whoever owns this horse to stop beating him. Poor thing’s terrified.”
The landlord glanced warily towards the bar. “Careful now, Will, it belongs to the Honourable Dudley Smythe. You need to watch what you say round that one bearing in mind the bad company he keeps.”
The boy shrugged and turned back to the horse once more as the young girl emerged from the stable leading her pony. She walked across the stable yard and stroked the horse’s muzzle too, watching the boy out of the corner of her eye. “That was very brave of you.”
Will Cobley looked uncomfortable. “Wasn’t nothing, Miss. Horses don’t want to hurt you. Just this one’s been badly treated and that isn’t right. He needed to feel loved again.”
The girl turned and looked him straight in the face. “His name’s Prancer. He belongs to my half-brother.”
The boy stepped back, expecting trouble, but the girl shook her head and smiled.
“No, no. I’m not going to tell tales on you. My half-brother is horrible. He’s cruel to everything and everyone. You did a good thing here, today. Thank you.”
She held out her hand and, wondering, Will shook it.
A loud, overbearing voice sounded from inside the pub. “Flora? Where is that stupid girl? Flora?”
The girl turned to Will and spoke quickly. “That’s me he’s after. You’d better go. He’s been drinking and my father’s estate owns the pub so no one dares stop him. Please go. He really is horrid.”
Footsteps sounded in from within the pub and she pushed Will towards the stable door. He stumbled inside and waited in the half dark watching as the young man reeled out of the pub’s back door laughing over his shoulder at the two men who followed him into the yard. Will’s eyes narrowed. What would the son of Lord Augustus Smythe be doing in the company of the least pleasant of the Stanwood estate’s tenant farmers, Alf Hills, and his cousin the equally unpleasant huntsman, Oc Chown? The two men waved the young aristocrat goodbye and then walked back into the pub laughing and slapping each other on the shoulders.
Monday 21st May
It was still a muddy brown. She stirred her paintbrush in the water jar, wiped it, selected more paint and tried again. No. Bother! She looked up at her governess who was calmly completing an annoyingly perfect watercolour of a vase of late flowering stocks, shrugged, pulled her plaited hair round in front of her eyes and peered at it. The governess stirred.
“What on earth, Miss Smythe, are you doing?”
Flora chewed her lip in concentration.
“Well, Miss, I’m trying to paint a picture of my pony and I’m sure his coat is exactly the same colour as my hair, but I just can’t get it right.”
Flora was sure that her governess was hiding a smile when she glanced again at her hair which was, she had been told, a rich, beechnut brown. In her more vain moments Flora was proud of her brown hair and her brown eyes and the arched nose her grandmother told her was so pretty. But her governess’ smile never rose to the surface. She spoke instead. “Enough painting for today I think, Miss Smythe. Now, kindly do me the honour of conjugating the verb amo?”
Oh no! Why Latin? Why? For goodness sake! She could understand (just) why her father insisted she learn to read, write and do arithmetic, but Latin… She put her paint brushes back in the jug of water, stifled a yawn and stared longingly out of the window to where she should be – out riding on Danny her lovely, mischievous old pony. She searched her memory. The first bit was manageable.
“Present indicative, Miss: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.” She paused. “Present Conjunctive: amem, ames, amet, amemus, ametis, ament.”
She paused once more, attempting to find a way out of the awful, awful boredom.
“Future, Miss: Amabo, amabis, amabit…”
Aaah! Yes. There was a way out. Oh you clever girl, Flora, well done. She raised her hand.
“Miss Johnson, may I ask a question, please?”
Her governess narrowed her eyes suspiciously and raised an eyebrow in a manner that Flora had almost given up trying to emulate.
“Well Miss, if amo means I love, how can you talk about the future? How can you say I will love. I mean surely the Romans didn’t wake up one morning and decide they were going to love someone next week, Miss, it just doesn’t make sense. You know what I mean, Miss, I will love Marcus Aurelius on Tuesday 14th of next month.”
She batted her eyelids innocently and looked up at her young governess wide eyed. Edith Johnson’s face was still rigidly severe.
“Flora Smythe, you know perfectly well that amo is a regular verb that we teach as an example to give you a sense of the structure of the language. Now, let me try a short Latin sentence on you: non equitandum. If you can translate that command into English, you may leave now.”
A huge smile appeared on Flora’s face. “I will then, Miss Johnson, because Danny’s a pony not a horse so that means I can ride him because you just said you will not ride a horse in Latin not you will not ride a pony. So there.”
They both laughed at the same time and Flora put on her best pleading face.
“Are you going to ride out with me, Edith? It’s a beautiful day for it. You can test me on my Latin nouns as we ride. I promise. Please, please.”
She slipped her free arm through that of her smiling governess and they walked together towards the stairs with Flora bubbling over with chatter the whole way.
“I wish Papa were not in London at the House of Lords so often. I’d like him to see how well you’re teaching me, Edith. I think that, for once, he might even be proud of me to see how much I’ve learned.”
She tilted her head to one side and paused, serious suddenly. “I do still wonder if I remind him of my mother, Edith. I mean I know she passed over so many years ago, but I think it upsets him still and that’s maybe why he doesn’t want to see me. Poor Papa.”
They walked on down the stairs past the family portraits hanging on the walls. Flora glanced at them, pausing suddenly, half noticing the sudden silence and nervous glance in her direction from her governess.
“Why is there no portrait of my mother, Edith?”
Saturday 14th November
Flora loved Juno. Her father, Lord Augustus Smythe, had bought her the colt as a fifteenth birthday present and she took every possible opportunity to ride him, even on the Hunt – the dreaded Hunt. She was aware that her half-brother, Dudley, loved all the things about hunting that she loathed. She loved the day in the saddle, the wild gallops, the hedges jumped, even the endless milling around chatting while the Huntsman set the hounds on a new scent. Dudley fretted at these delays, barking senseless orders at the Whippers In, yelling impatiently at the Huntsman, ordering the hunt followers out of his way. To be in at the kill, to witness the violence, see the blood, laugh at the suffering of the poor, exhausted animal – all these he loved. All these she loathed.
And today was no different. She had, as ever, enjoyed the first few hours of the Meet when the fox was far away, when the overexcited horses skittered and danced on the cobbled street, when the hounds milled round under the control of the Huntsman, when the bright scarlet of the Master of Foxhounds’ coat was not streaked and spattered by mud; but by mid afternoon she was tired; Juno was tiring, the useless (thank goodness) huntsman had lost two foxes in the morning and clouds were building over the distant hills. Abruptly Juno’s ears went up and flicked forward. The riders beside her began to trot then canter – the view halloo had sounded. Juno joined the fun, tiredness forgotten. Flora leaned forward on the side saddle and called out encouragement into his ear.
Will Cobley yawned and shivered as the westering sun dipped towards the hills and the new weather front crept across the valley. He pulled his cap further down onto his forehead and tightened his tarpaulin coat round his neck with one hand, the other never leaving the harnesses, wishing he’d stopped for food earlier. But he’d not wanted to break the rhythm. Harry was as strong a young horse as you could ever want and old Dickon was always so willing. He allowed himself another glance along the perfect furrow then felt the sudden change in the horses’ gait. Something had spooked them. He heard it then himself – the View Halloo – distant, but clear. He pulled the horses up and waited. Dickon saw the fox first as it skirted the field staying close to the hedgerow and shook his massive head in its direction. And then the hounds were there, breaking through the hedge, still baying their excitement. But the dog fox had been hunted before. It turned, jinked, changed direction again and darted across the freshly ploughed soil, the hounds closing all the time. Will realised what was about to happen and groaned in despair. The first riders were through the gate and crossing the perfect furrows before he even had time to drop the harness and grab the horses’ heads. He should have known better – the Hunt was not famed for its care of farmland. He hung on grimly to the shire horses, calming his own mind, calming their minds, ignoring the yells and insults, even the back handed slash across his face from the huntsman’s crop. It was over in moments, half a day’s work ruined, the shire horses almost too spooked to control and blood running down his cheekbone.
The Hunt had turned into an open gate and on to a freshly ploughed field. Flora pulled Juno up at the gate not wanting to ruin what looked as though it had been a day’s work for the ploughman. Most of the other riders had simply crossed the field and were crashing through the distant hedge as she turned Juno away, glancing up to see the sun creeping down towards the horizon behind a bank of cloud and feeling the first drops of rain. She trotted her colt back down the lane and turned into the track through Prior’s Wood to take the short cut back to Stanwood House. It was much darker in the wood than Flora had expected, but she had walked and ridden this way home for most of her young life and at least the leafless trees formed some kind of protection against the biting wind and sleet. She leaned forward and patted Juno’s neck.
“We’ll be home soon, Juno, dear. Home and dry.”
She smiled as his ears flicked back. He was so intelligent and aware of everything around him. He turned his head and whinnied and she glanced round in turn. A group of riders from the Hunt was closing with her from behind at the trot. She tightened her grip on Juno’s reins and slowed to a halt. The riders – she could see there were three now – weren’t slowing. In the faint light of a small clearing she could see they had scarves wrapped over their face against the sleet. Their horses were unrecognisable too, covered as they were with mud spatter. Juno skittered, spooked by the strange sight. And they were on her, the first rider raising his crop and slashing it across her head, knocking her sideways off the saddle, the second rider whipping at her frightened horse. Juno reared, shrieking. She raised her arm to protect herself from the next blow, slipped from the saddle and fell to the ground, an agonising stab of pain hitting her left hip as she landed, her boot still caught in the stirrup as Juno bucked and whinnied and dragged her down the path. Her head hit a tree root and she knew no more.
Alf Hills, tenant farmer on the Smythe estate and the community’s leading misanthrope, was talking animatedly to his mud-covered cousin, the Huntsman, Oc Chown. They both paused and turned at the sound of the heavy hooves in the stable yard. Will Cobley half heard the Huntsman’s voice.
“He said now she’s… to get rid…”
Will missed the end of the sentence as Dickon snorted and pulled him and Harry towards their stables. Safe on the back of his hunter, Oc Chown raised his crop once more. “I oughta teach you a lesson you won’t never forget, Will Cobley.”
The huntsman stood in his stirrups, raising the crop above his head. Will looked up at him. “I wouldn’t do that Mr Chown, if I was you. Aren’t many people who get a free hit on Will Cobley. Think on that before you try it again.”
The huntsman hesitated. It was true that there was something about young Will that gave even big hard men pause. It may have been the steady gaze; it may have been that everyone in the village knew that his father had taught Will to box from his earliest years; it may have been the lean, muscular body and sinewy arms. He turned to his cousin and blustered. “Mr Dudley will be wanting words with you, Alf Hills, employing trouble makers like this.”
Will walked the shire horses into their loose boxes, removed their harnesses and started to rub them down with smooth steady strokes – Dickon first, then Harry. As he was checking the hooves for stones, he heard the tenant farmer’s harsh voice close behind him.
“So did you finish the field?”
Will didn’t look up. He spoke quietly over his shoulder.
“Best not to raise your voice, Mr Hills. Harry was spooked by the hunt and you don’t want him getting excited and kicking holes out of your stables now, do you?”
The farmer growled. Will sighed. “The hunt trampled across half the field. Your man, Chown, he’s a liability and you know it, and it was lucky it was me he hit and not Dickon or Harry. Now that would have been trouble. I’ll finish it off tomorrow morning, Mr Hills, and catch up before Sunday. You can trust me for that.”
“I won’t be trusting you with nothing no more, Will Cobley. Your services are no longer required at Glebe Farm. Once you’ve got these two settled you can get out and not come back. Mr Dudley don’t like trouble makers.”
Will finished combing out Harry’s tail and walked round to comb the mane. He glanced across at the farmer. “I’ll be coming in to collect my wages then before I go, Mr Hills.”
The farmer spluttered with rage. Harry’s ears twitched backwards and forwards nervously and Will clicked his tongue gently, stroking the broad head. He turned towards the farmer and watched him steadily.
“I’ll be coming in for my wages, Mr Hills. Don’t think otherwise and remember that I know how to count. You can pay me for half a day today if it makes you feel better.”
He heard the stable slam behind the farmer, grunted with amusement and turned to the horses. “Well, big fellas, looks like our working days together are over. Can’t pretend I’m not going to miss you two. You’re the best pals a chap like me could have had. Have a care now.”
He patted the horses’ withers and walked out, not looking back. The rain was still horizontal and he ran across to the farm’s back door, shaking out the tarpaulin coat before he entered. He paused, his hand on the door knocker, hearing raised voices inside.
“What do you mean, Alf Hills, you got rid of the trouble maker? Young Will Cobley, a trouble maker? Are you mad? He’s the best ploughman in the county by a mile. And half the fields not done and it’s late October. What have you done?”
Will counted five and knocked the door. He heard the rustle of skirts and pulled his cap off politely. “Evening, Mrs Hills. I’m sorry to be a bother, but I’ve come for my wages.”
The elderly woman patted his arm. “Come on in, Will. I’ll make sure you get ’em.”
Will shook his head. “I’ll wait here if it’s all the same to you, Mrs Hills. I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble in your house. I’m owed one pound nineteen and seven pence. Mr Hills knows that and I said I’d take only a half wage for today to make him feel better.”
Tears shone in the farmer’s wife’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Will. I know this ain’t right.”
The inner door opened and a hand threw money out into the porch, the coins scattering and rolling. Will sighed. It was to be expected. Mrs Hills ran back inside shouting and crying, coming back after a half minute of sob filled silence with an oil lamp. Together they searched the ground coming up with everything bar a single penny.
It was three miles back home. He pulled the string of the tarpaulin coat tight round his neck once more and trudged on, singing Harry Lauder’s Roamin in the Gloamin, as loud as he could. It was his favourite song of the moment and one that he felt quite suited the time of day if not the weather. When he forgot the words he whistled; when it rained too hard to whistle he hummed and it was during an extended hum that he heard it first. He paused and stopped. No, perhaps not. He started again but… yes – there it was again – a faint whinny. It was a horse and a horse in pain or his name wasn’t… He tilted his head to try and take a bearing. It was definite now – yes – there. He backtracked into the trees, calling out as he did so. The whinnying was clearer now. It was definitely in pain, wherever it was. If only it wasn’t so damn dark. The whinny was close by now. He started to talk – soothing, gentle words. The horse fell silent and in the silence the rain paused, the moon floated high above the shreds of cloud and by its light Will could see clearly. The horse was caught by its reins in the branches of a coppiced tree and across its head was a terrible gash, the flesh pulled back to the bone on either side. Will whistled through his teeth and then spoke his soothing litany once more, watching the terror begin to die in the animal’s eyes. It took him ten minutes to release the horse, ten minutes in which he wished twenty times over for a bow saw to attack the heavy branches. But he did it, bit-by-bit, branch-by-branch, until eventually the young colt was free. He stroked its flank feeling it trembling and quivering with residual fear.
“Well young fella me lad, I know where you belong. You’ve been out with those silly hunters who just lost me my job. Let’s get you back home then.”
He paused, jaw dropping in amazement. There was a riding boot, upside down, hanging from the stirrup. By its size the boot belonged to a woman. He peered at the horse’s back – of course, it was a side saddle. He breathed out slowly.
“Well young chap, what happened to your rider then, eh?”
He glanced up at the moon – another squall was on its way, but the light was just enough for the while. He crouched and saw a small pool of dark liquid framed by small spots. Blood – damn – someone was hurt. He didn’t need to hold the reins – at this moment the horse wouldn’t have left him for ten bucketfuls of mash. He followed the spray of blood for twelve, thirteen, fourteen paces. The squall was about on him. Then he caught a glimpse of fabric on a bush – a strip of torn riding habit. A veil was next and then a hand, fingers upturned on the forest floor. He knelt beside her, feeling for a pulse. It was there – weak, slow, intermittent – but there. He studied the body – there was no way the left leg should be sticking out at that angle. He slipped off his tarpaulin coat, straightened the leg, wincing as a heart rending groan came from the woman’s throat, wrapped the coat tight round the slight figure and lifted her bodily on to the side saddle, running the stirrup leather as low as he could and attempting to rest her body against the pommel. He touched the velvet of the horse’s muzzle.
“Come on young fella, let’s get her home and then we’ll see to that face of yours.”
He walked carefully beside the horse, holding the unconscious body as steady as he could against its easy gait. It took him almost half an hour and the squall had, by now, not so much passed as transformed itself into a torrential downpour. His first thought had been to ring the doorbell at the front of the house, but the habit of a lifetime reasserted itself and he skirted the main building and headed for the stables, calling out for help as he entered the yard. No answer. Strange. He found an empty stall, lifted the girl’s body off the horse, trying desperately to keep the leg straight, laid her on a bale of hay in the darkness of the stable, talking to her gently when she groaned.
“There, there. It’s all right, Miss. You’ll be home in no time at all now.”
He turned away and tended to the horse, promising himself he’d come back and stitch that wound before he left.
The girl was unconscious again – if she’d ever come round in the first place. Will found a plank resting against the wall outside the stall and lashed it to her leg with all the loose tack he could find then, wrapping her once more in his tarpaulin coat, he lifted her bodily, grunting with the effort, and headed through the driving rain to the servants’ quarters, calling out as he pushed through the door. No one, not a soul. What was going on here for goodness sake? Butler’s pantry – empty: scullery and kitchen – empty. He pushed on through the corridors until he reached it – the boundary, the dividing line – the green baize backed door at which people of his class turned back unless on strict instruction. He hesitated, squared his wide shoulders, turned and backed through the swing door into the rear of the brightly lit hallway. The harsh electric lighting blinded him for a second and he failed to see the elderly woman standing by the door, peering out into the rain lashed night. He called out once more and turned towards the main drawing room, looking for a place where he could lay his burden down. The old woman turned, saw what appeared to resemble a giant holding a dead body. She cried out once and slumped to the floor in a faint.
Will laid the body of the young woman on a chaise longue. Her eyelids flickered open once more and this time there was recognition in them. He smiled at her.
“You’re home now, Miss. They’ll get a doctor to you now. I’d better go and see to the old ‘un. Reckon the sight of me caused her to collapse in a heap. And I can see her point mind.”
Will was delighted to see the faintest of smiles crossed the exhausted face as he straightened and turned to help the old woman. But before he had moved more than half a pace, there was a crash of footsteps and three men raced through the open front door. The first man, Will recognised. It was his Lordship still in muddy hunting clothes; the second was the butler, soaked to the skin in his house clothes. The third Will didn’t have time to see before he grabbed and hurled him across the polished floor to crash against the fire surround. His Lordship saw none of this so fixed was he on the figure on the chaise longue.
“Flora? Flora? My dear child you’re safe back.”
He dropped to his knees in front of her and stared at the tarpaulin coat and the roughly lashed leg.
“Oh Good Lord, you’re hurt. Livens? Livens, send for the doctor immediately. Use the telephone, man. Dudley? Dudley!”
Lord Augustus Smythe turned towards where Will had picked himself up was walking deliberately towards the man who had thrown him there. His Lordship glared.
“Who the devil are you? How did you get here? Dudley, throw him out.”
Dudley swallowed and backed towards his father, mouthing in desperation. “I’ve got a dozen servants who can be in here at a moment’s notice, so don’t you try anything.”
He jumped towards the bell rope as Will kept walking forward and past him.
“Excuse me, my Lord, I just want to collect my coat then I’ll be on my way. The lady’s got very bad breaks to her thigh and hip bones so I wouldn’t move her ‘til the doctor gets here. She’s lost blood too. I couldn’t tell how much. It was too dark to see where I found her in Prior’s Wood. I’d wrap in her something warm quick though, she’s cold as ice.”
He touched his forelock to the stunned aristocrat and turned towards the servants’ quarters as three footmen dashed through the green baize door. Will looked back at Dudley Smythe, looked at the footmen, shook his head in amusement and walked past them and out once more into the stables. He lit a hurricane lamp, found Iodine and a needle and thread and crossed to the young horse with the gashed face, talking in his quiet, reassuring voice.
“This is going to hurt I’m afraid, young fella, but you know I’m going to be doing my best to sort you out.”
The horse flinched as he poured the Iodine onto the torn flesh, then quietened as Will, still talking gently, sowed and stitched, closing the cut across its cheek, drawing it tight and finishing with the finest small stitching he could manage in the ill lit stable. It took him half an hour of careful work before he could stand back and admire the results.
“Well you’re never going to win a beauty competition now, but it looks a sight better than before. Yep, you’ll do, my dear.”
He rubbed the exhausted animal down, brushed out the knots in its tail and mane, managed to convince it to lie down in the soft straw and then sat beside it singing softly until the big, gentle, liquid eyes closed. Will crept across to the stable door and peered out. The rain was lashing across the yard, water already filling the gutters and drains. He sighed, walked back across to the sleeping horse, pulled his snap tin out of his coat pocket and began to eat the thick hunk of bread and cheese his mother had prepared for his midday meal. He reached up for the hurricane lamp, blew out the flame, and burrowed into the straw. His eyelids drooped and, as he began to doze, he thought of the faint smile on the young woman’s face when he had laid her down. So that was Lord Augustus’ daughter, Miss Flora, poor soul. She was going to have a world of pain to live through now.
Warm breath on his neck brought him to the surface and he shook his head trying to ease the crick in his neck. The young horse was standing over him watching him closely. Will laughed and examined his stitching in the half-light of dawn. Not too bad. Not too bad at all. The colt pushed its head against him affectionately and he smiled, stroking its muzzle then turning to the hayfork hanging by the stable door. By the time the stable boy arrived at six thirty Will had mucked out and found more feed and water for the injured animal. The boy watched him nervously over the stable’s half door.
“It’s all right, young un. I’m Will Cobley, the ploughman. I found this horse last night with a young lady badly injured so I brought ‘em both back home.”
The youngster squeaked with excitement. “That was his Lordship’s daughter, Miss Flora, wasn’t it? Doctor’s been with her all night. Word is it was a really bad break of her leg. Will you get a reward?”
Will laughed. “Not I, young un. I got threatened for my trouble. Definitely not my best day.”
He turned back to the horse and examined the stitching in the morning light. “Young un, this poor chap got badly cut about last night. Make sure he gets a bit of exercise, but no one’s to ride him until the scar’s healed. See?”
He indicated the face. The stable boy whistled as he saw the wound. “His name’s Juno, Mister, and he’s Miss Flora’s favourite, but they’ll get rid of ‘im, straight off they will. No one’ll want to ride an ugly horse, they’ll say. He’ll be for the knackers’ yard, for certain.”
Will turned slowly, reached out a long arm and lifted the stable boy off the ground, holding the amazed lad quite still in mid air. “Now you listen to me, youngster, a scar on the face means nothing. It’s what’s inside that counts and this is a good horse, gentle, kind and willing. If a man had a scar like that would you send him to a knackers’ yard? Well, would you?”
The boy shook his head vigourously. Will eyed him for a moment longer, then dropped him to the ground and turned once more to the horse which was still watching him. He rested his head against its cheek and stroked it gently, speaking softly over his shoulder.
“Any one says anything about this horse going to the knackers’ yard, you come and find me and I’ll have words.”
The boy nodded again. Will picked up his tarpaulin coat and strode out of the stable yard. A middle aged man in an old Ulster coat, watched him leave, nodded thoughtfully, then detached himself from the shadows by the stable doors and walked across to the young horse, nodding at the boy.
“Morning, Jimmy. How’s Juno?”
He indicated the injured animal.
“Dunno, Mr Chant. That man, Will Cobley, he stitched him up. Has he done a good job? You come special to see Juno?”
The vet shook his head. “Not really, I just came over to check all the horses after the hunt. Too many injuries these days now The Honourable Dudley Smythe’s in charge.”
Jimmy glanced round warily. All the staff, whether in the stables or the house itself, knew how unwise it was these days to express any sentiment against the young master of the house. The vet leaned forward, examined the needlework on the horse’s face and nodded appreciatively. This was good work, very good work. He spoke to the boy once more. “So tell me about this Will Cobley, then.”
The boy shrugged. “He’s a ploughman, Mr Chant, sir, won lots of prizes for his work is all I know.”
The vet nodded, still examining the horse’s scar. How did this Will Cobley know to pull the flesh together in this way? If he’d done it any other way the scarring would have been terrible. He thought for a while. “Jimmy, you’re not to tell a soul about the scar on Juno’s face. And make especially sure that Mr Dudley doesn’t get to hear anything about it. Understood? Not until Miss Flora is well enough to come and see the poor thing for herself.”
The boy nodded, worried now. “Yes, Mr Chant.”
“You’ll just do exactly what that Will Cobley told you. Understood?
“Yes, Mr Chant.”
Glamis Road, Shadwell, London E1
Monday 23rd September
Second-hand bed in a third rate bedroom in a fourth class neighbourhood. It had become The Honourable Dudley Smythe’s morning mantra. He rolled over, levered himself into a sitting position, tried to ignore the pounding hammer behind his eyes, pulled himself to his feet, half tripped on one of his boots and managed to stagger across the cracked linoleum to the window. Once there he rocked on his feet, fighting back the nausea, wrenched back the thin, dirty curtains, the hooks catching on the joint in the brass curtain rail and heaved the broken sash window up a few inches. The acrid smoke stench from last night’s bombing raid hit the back of his throat. Through the dust he could see down as far as Shadwell Basin where yet more barrage balloons were floating in the morning sunlight over the river Thames. The bloody Germans were bombing the London docks almost every night now. So… He scratched his unwashed chest and picked up the grease-smeared half page from the newspaper from the marble topped washstand. Thank God for the disgusting working class habit of selling fish and chips wrapped in old newspaper pages otherwise he might never have known.
“The death is announced of The Rt Hon Lord Augustus Henry Alfred Smythe at Stanwood House, Stanwood in the county of Northamptonshire on September 19th aged 80 years after a short illn…
The rest of the obituary had been torn away. A satisfied smile crossed his face again as he held the paper up to the light, the newsprint transparent through the stain left by the chip fat. So, time to get out. Time to go back home. Time to claim his birthright. Always assuming there was still a birthright to claim, of course. He paused. Would his Uncle Henry still be alive and able to claim the title for himself and his side of the family? He pondered the matter. He had more than enough money now to fight a case to claim his father’s estate if he needed to although it would mean revealing himself publicly and that could involve far too many legal dangers. Not that money was a problem now of course. He could afford a decent lawyer if he needed one. Money… He pulled the wad of dirty, greasy pound notes from his waistcoat pocket and counted them again. Last week had been good. Last year had been good. He smiled. Ever since he’d organised his little gang here in the East End all those years ago life itself had been almost good.
He reached out and squeezed his wrist into the half full water jug on the washstand, feeling for the oilskin bag and pulling it out slowly, pinned between his first and second fingers. He knew how much money was in the packet of course, but he still counted it again just for the sheer atavistic pleasure he took from touching his very own hoard. Two hundred and twenty four pounds in the packet – add the one hundred and twenty pounds from his gambling winnings and from the whores this last month, add in too the savings in that dirty little City bank with which he had dealt for so long and he’d be worth four thousand, seven hundred and twenty nine pounds, six shillings and tuppence ha’penny. Calculations like this had always come easy to him, ever since that stupid bitch of a governess had taught him – he growled in his throat at the thought of her. The money was nothing like what he should have of course, but it was enough for the time being. In the meantime he would just dig out his twenty year old Saville Row suit, bathe in the public baths, have a shave and a hair cut and stroll into the West End to find that shady lawyer he had met last year. He dipped his grubby handkerchief into the water bowl, wiped his face, brushed and parted his hair and crept towards the door. The bed springs squeaked.
“Where’s my payment?”
He smiled, a mirthless yet proud smile. After all he had trained her himself. For a second he considered giving her a ten shilling note, but years of self-enforced caution took over. If she had ten bob out of him she’d be going round boasting to the other whores and then what would happen? He found two half crowns in his waistcoat pocket and placed them on her outstretched hand. She looked at them through slit eyes and her lips turned down. He smiled again, this time with genuine amusement, found another two and sixpence in loose change in his trouser pocket and placed it on top of the half crowns. Her lips turned up. He closed the door behind him and wondered if he would ever be able to get down the stairs without his landlady hearing him. Sure enough there she was on the first floor landing, but not, for once, with her hands on her hips glowering.
“Good morning, Mrs Meriwether. Fine morning.”
She pulled her hands out of her apron, made what almost passed for a curtsey and leered at him through toothless gums. “Good morning, Lord Dudley.” She simpered.
Damn and blast it, he must have been boasting in his cups last night about inheriting his father’s title. He fixed a superior smile on his face, pulled two pound notes from the waistcoat pocket and held them out for her to take. “That should square us away for a bit, Mrs Meriwether, I believe.” She all but grabbed the notes, stuffing them into the apron that appeared simultaneously to act as bank, food store and laundry basket. Outside he considered turning into the Grapes for an early morning snifter, rejected the temptation and strolled down to the dock to consider his immediate future. There, seated on an immense mooring bollard, a rolled Players Navy Cut cigarette in his fingers, he thought back to where it had all begun, to where it had all gone wrong, to all the people on whom he could now wreak revenge – starting with Will fucking Cobley. No idea if he was still alive, but if he was it would only be until the moment he sent his men to wipe him off the face of the earth. He smiled suddenly. Then there was Flora, of course, his stupid bitch of a half-sister. Caused her more than a bit of pain hadn’t he? Should have made sure he’d killed her though. The smile died. No, she he would leave alive to suffer as he had suffered for the last twenty two years, five months, three weeks and three days.