The Castle (11)
Ann Netherton left her dwelling and walked along the trackway beside the stream. Maben bounded ahead of her, alongside Gallant the dog. She watched as they ran across the grass, Gallant jumping as Maben held a small branch above the hound’s head. Each day Ann visited Elowen’s grandmother’s dwelling to make sure it remained locked and in good repair. As she did so she heard the echo of Elowen’s words: ‘When the war is over, I will return and lay my traps in the forest with Maben. And, if I do not return, then I leave the dwelling to you, mistress Netherton, for all the kindness you have shown me over many years.’
The girl’s decision to enlist with the garrison at Pendennis Castle had surprised Ann. The forest and the open grasslands high above the town were all that Elowen had ever known. Ann had told her that the war between king and parliament - the fighting and daily squalor that existed further up country – was a world away from their scattered community. But Elowen had countered this by saying the war was now close by and it was her duty to serve the king. Ann could sense the influence of the girl’s grandmother, and prayed that Elowen might have a change of heart. Even in death, it seemed, the old woman’s adherence to strange pagan gods lingered on, gods that she confused with the mystery of Charles, the king.
The weather was cool; the stream bubbled in its own fruitful manner. Ann arrived at the wood and daub cottage, checked that the front door remained secure. Satisfied that no one had entered, she went in.
A harsh, musty scent greeted her - the smell of encroaching damp in the timbers. Gallant, his tail between his legs, pined as he sloped through the door, looking this way and that for Elowen and her grandmother. Maben was downcast, sad that his only true friend had gone; sad, too, that he had no one to hunt with in the forest.
Once the room was aired, and Ann was satisfied the place remained in good order, she re-fastened the door and walked the short distance to the grave of Elowen's grandmother. She picked a posy of meadowsweet, tying the stems with twine, which she lay before the simple wooden cross that marked the old woman's resting place. Maben, on Ann's command, stood in silence while Gallant cautiously sought out fresh scents along the stream. When Ann had given up a prayer, she allowed Maben to run free, the boy moving awkwardly, twisting like a spinning top that was sure to topple over.
Ann worried for him. His status as a mute and his natural inclination to stray meant that she and Bethsany had to be strict. When the three of them visited a house in the town, joining members of their congregation for prayers, Bethsany was constantly slapping the back of the boy's hands to stop his infernal fidgeting. During bible readings he had a habit of giggling at certain passages, disturbing the other congregants. Ann hoped that her church would be the boy's salvation; but his inability to fully embrace the Lord made her anxious for his future.
'Maben – we must return home. Come now.'
The boy, along with Gallant, had drifted to the threshold of the forest. He seemed cautious, as if something was preying on his mind. ‘Maben!’ she called. He turned and skipped ahead, stick in hand, the dog jumping and snapping to retrieve it. 'Go gentle, Maben! Go gentle!' shouted Ann. It was said the boy's parents were poor tinker folk who drowned in a scully boat, leaving twin babes alone in the world. Because Bethsany shed no blood and would always remain without child the sisters took one in. The other twin, a girl, lived in the town, or so Ann had been told. There was no contact between them – Ann had insisted. Maben had no need for the influence of a sister.
Gallant started to bark. Across the grasslands Ann saw two horsemen riding at pace towards them – soldiers wearing the colours of the king. She rushed to the boy, holding tight Maben's arm as the soldiers approached. Gallant snarled at the horses - a chestnut mare and a grey. Ann tried to quieten the dog, bending to take him by the scruff of his neck as the riders brought their mounts to a standstill before her.
'You are from these parts, good wife ?'
The soldier spoke with a gamely accent. 'We are godly folk, sir’ Ann said. ‘We live but a short way along the stream.'
'Then I must tell you, you are in peril. General Fairfax’s army is but hours away. No woman will be safe upon its arrival.'
Ann said: 'My destiny lies in the hands of our Lord, Jesus Christ.'
'The Lord won't help you when Fairfax's men come a-callin' said the second.
Ann did not answer. She was still holding Maben who seemed transfixed by the men and their horses - their stirrups plumage and colourful tunics; the sheer majesty of the animals bearing down on him. But Ann could not keep hold of Gallant. The dog broke loose, arched himself, began to snarl and bark causing unrest among the horses, bringing the encounter to an early close.
‘Heed what we say, good wife. Your God will not spare you from Satan’s army.’
They pulled away, riding at a brisk canter. Perhaps they were tasked with finding recruits among the smallholders, thought Ann; or else they were rogues on their way to demand more cider from Elijah.
As she walked she said a quiet prayer, silently admonished the soldiers for declaring her a good wife. Ann was no man’s wife. She had placed herself firmly in the hands of the Lord, though she was inclined to believe there were many who would court her.
Bethsany came into view – collecting eggs from the coop – and Ann scolded herself for presuming what went on in the minds of men.
A pot was boiling on the stove; a square of cheese, bartered at market that very morning, sat beside a loaf of cornbread. Fairfax and his army would not encroach upon their lives, Ann was sure. What use to a man like him were two sisters, a mute boy, and a dog ?
The image of the footman played on Maben’s mind. At night he would cry out and flail in his bed, causing Bethsany to get up and calm him with a well-intentioned pinch on his cheek. And during his waking hours, as he collected water in the pail or threw grain to the chickens, the footman’s face would appear in the trees, a fearful look in his eyes as the force of Elowen’s slingshot stone reverberated through the man’s body. Did he still wear that fearful look, after having lain buried for these past weeks ? Or had his fearful grimace transformed itself into a gaze of everlasting serenity ?
One day Maben left his chores and walked into the forest. He followed the track towards the road where the carriage had come to a halt. Maben looked for the horses that he had set free, wondered if they were grazing beyond the woodland on the opposite side of the road. Slowly he edged towards that place where he and Elowen had piled leaves and branches high on the body of the footman.
The burial mound was still mostly intact. Wind, rain and wild animals had left the top leaves scattered and sodden; branches had been gnawed, pulled to the side. Maben stood over the flimsy burial chamber and began to remove the foliage from above the footman’s head. The foul stench of the body came in a rush, causing Maben to retch. As he worked, one arm held across his mouth, the sky clouded over and a squall of rain swept overhead. Gradually, from beneath the tangle and darkness, the footman’s face emerged. It had turned a ghastly blue and Maben saw insects swarming across bloated, blood-drained cheeks. The eyes remained shuttered, the lids held in place by Elowen’s stones, the purple-coloured mouth frozen as tiny motes scurried across the lips.
Maben pulled away more branches until he could see the footman’s sodden grey long coat; then he saw the man’s white stockings and buckled shoes. Maben liked the look of those shoes. They would fetch a pretty penny in the town market. But he remembered Elowen’s words: she had warned him against taking any of the brute’s possessions. Why, even the musket had been left behind, a prize that would be of interest to many a trader. It lay beside him now, like a disused, weather-beaten guard.
Maben grew uneasy. And yet death had cast its spell. He wanted something that he could keep, that would absolve his secret.
Again he heard Elowen’s voice: ‘Maben’ she said. ‘Plain sight of the footman’s possessions will lead to our unmasking as his killers. And if that’s the case – think on it! We will be strung up in the market square like dogs.’
He turned away from the buckled shoes and musket - checked the footman’s coat pockets. He could tell that the body had lost its firmness; it swilled as if it had turned into pottage. The stench was unbearable, even though the great coat, stained as it was, shielded Maben from the worst. The boy slipped his hand into each pocket: in the first he found wet powder and match cord; in the second he fished out a small key.
Maben was no fool. He knew what the key was for. He stood with it in the palm of his hand, began to retch once again, the air swirling now with the body’s foul odours. He threw the branches, leaves and whatever else was to hand, onto the burial mound. Satisfied, he hurried into the forest, among the sweet-smelling pines, where at last he was able to uncover his mouth and breathe.