Authors: Ellis Peters
A 3S digital back-up edition 2.0
click for scan notes and proofing history
First published in Great Britain in 1965 by William Collins, Sons & Co. Ltd
This edition published by Warner Books in 2000
Copyright © Ellis Peters 1965
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 0 7515 3098 0
Printed and bound in Great Britain
by Mackays of Chatham plc, Chatham, Kent
A Division of
Little, Brown and Company (UK)
: Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!
THE BOY in the sea was in difficulties, that was plain from the first moment Dominic clapped eyes on him. Only a seal could possibly navigate off the Dragon’s Head in a tide like this one, racing out on the ebb with the impetus of an express train, checking and breaking back again like hammers on the toothed rocks, lashing out right and left in bone-white spray, and seething down through the wet sand in deep clawmarks, with a hissing like the old serpent of legend striking and missing his prey. For a mile off the point, far into deep water greener than emeralds, the sea boiled. Nobody in his senses swam there in an ebbing tide.
He cupped his hands and yelled, and the bobbing head, a small cork tossed in a cauldron of foam, heaved clear of the spray for an instant and turned towards him a pallor which must be its face. He yelled again, and peremptorily waved the swimmer inshore. The clamour of the ebb off the point might well have carried his voice away, but the gesture was seen and understood. And ignored. The head vanished in foam, and reappeared tossing off spray, battling doggedly outward.
Dominic looked round wildly for someone else to take the decision from him, but there was nobody. This wasn’t the populous Maymouth side of the Dragon, but the bleak bay of Pentarno on the northern side, and tea-time of a fine but blowy day, when nobody frequented those sandy wastes. Mile upon mile of drifted sand on his right hand, and inland, beyond the processional dunes, the first green of pasture and gold and brown of stubble; and on his left the craggy bastions of the Dragon’s Head, running out to sea in a grapeshot of scattered rocks, the cliff paths a six-strand necklace above him, a tapering crescent of pebbles below. Not a local in sight to take the load from him. And if he didn’t make up his mind quickly it might be too late. Better make a fool of yourself than watch some other fool kid drown himself before your eyes.
Oh, damn! Whether he was in trouble or not—!
Dominic launched himself from the path and went down the last slope of thinning grass and shale in a long, precarious slither, to arrive upright but staggering in the grey pebble shelf under the rocks, just clear of the hissing water. It was falling rapidly now, and this was no very good place to go in, but he had no choice. He shed his shirt and slacks, kicked off his sandals, and waded into water that ran back before him, snatching its last fringes away from his toes in a scurry of foam. He overtook it, felt his way as fast as he dared down the broken slippery descent, took one last rapid sighting, and struck out strongly towards the boy in the sea.
The first stages were easy, and he knew his own capabilities and could trust himself in this much of a sea, even if his own experience had been, gained in the makeshift river-and-swimming-bath conditions of a land-locked county. But the currents off these rocks were something nobody would willingly venture in a fast ebb like this, and the thought of the jagged teeth ripping up the water into oil-green ribbons clung in his mind through every minute of that swim. Half a mile northward, and the mild, long rollers would be sliding innocently down the level sand, as harmless as the ripples in a baby’s bath. Here he had a fight on his hands.
He dug his shoulders into it, head low, edging away from the rocks with every stroke. Once he hoisted himself out of the trough to take a fresh sighting, and found the boy by the glimpse of a slender arm flung clear of the water for an instant. Nearer than Dominic had expected. And perhaps still clear of the treacherous pull of the rocks. Maybe he’d known what he was doing, after all. Maybe he was one of the harbour kids, bred from some ancestry involving fish, and did this every afternoon for fun.
But no, that wouldn’t do. The harbour kids simply didn’t go in off the point, they had too much sense. The ones who can do nearly everything never push their luck to the last rim, because they don’t have to prove anything, they know.
Well, if this kid was the strongest swimmer on the North Cornish coast, he was coming ashore now, if his rescuer had to knock him out to bring him.
The sea flung them together almost unexpectedly in the end; two startled faces, open-mouthed, hair streaming water, glared at each other out of focus, six inches of ocean racing between them hard and green as bottle-glass. Dominic caught at a thin, slippery arm, and gripped it, pulling the boy round to lie against his body. The boy opened his mouth to yell, and choked on water, rolling helplessly for a moment; and then he was being towed strongly back towards the shore, and seemed to have lost all command of his own powers at the shock of such an indignity. He recovered almost as quickly, and suddenly he was a fury. He jerked himself free and tried to dive under his rescuer, but he had met with a resolution as grim as his own. The plunging head was retrieved painfully by its wet hair, and clipped smartly on the ear into the bargain. The sea effectively quenched the resulting yell of rage, and Dominic recovered his hold and kicked out powerfully for the distant sands.
For the first stage of that return journey, in the event more arduous and tedious than risky, he got no help from his passenger. But after a few minutes he was aware of a considerable skill seconding his own strokes; however sullenly, certainly to good effect. The kid had given up and resigned himself to being hauled ashore; and at least, having gone so far, he had sense enough to reason that he might as well make the journey as quickly and comfortably as possible. They came in like that, together, struggling steadily northward across the tug of the undertow into the sunny water off the beach, until they touched ground, and floundered wearily through the shallows, feet sliding, deep into the soft, shaken sands.
Rising out of the water was an effort that sucked out their strength suddenly, and set them trembling and buckling at the joints with the realisation of their own tiredness. They fell together on their faces, toes still trailing in the receding foam, and lay gasping and coughing up sea-water. And there was the late afternoon sun on their backs, grateful and warm as a stroking hand, and the soft, almost silent waves lapping innocently on the long, level beach that stretched for more than two miles beyond Pentarno.
Dominic hoisted himself laboriously on his hands, and looked at his capture with something between a proprietor’s pride and a keeper’s exasperation. A slim, sunburned body, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, in black swimming trunks. Light brown hair—probably almost flaxen when it was dry—streamed sea-water into the sand. He lay on his folded arms, the fine fan of his ribs clapping frantically for air, like cramped wings. Dominic got to his knees, hoisted the limp, light body by the middle, and squeezed out of him the remainder of the brine he had swallowed.
Hands and knees scrabbled in the sand, and the boy writhed away from him like an eel. Under the lank fall of hair one half-obscured eye, blue and steely as a dagger, glared fury.
,” spluttered the ungrateful child, from a mouth bitter with sea-water, “do you think you’re—
?” He choked and ran out of breath there. Dominic sat back on his heels and scowled back at him resentfully.
“Now, look here, you daft little devil, you’d do better thinking what the hell
were doing, out there in a sea like that. Don’t you know the bathing’s dead dangerous anywhere off the point? Especially when the tide’s going out, like this. This town marks all the safe places, why can’t you have the sense to stick to ’em? And don’t give me that drop-dead look, either. You can thank your stars I was around. You’d have been in a mess without me.”
! I wasn’t in trouble—” He wavered for the first time; fundamentally he was, it seemed, a truthful person, even when in a rage. “I could have managed, anyhow. I know the tides round here a lot better than you do, I bet.” The still indignant eyes had sized up a summer visitor without any difficulty. “Damn it, I
“Then your dad ought to tan you,” said Dominic grimly,“for taking such fool chances.”
“I wasn’t taking chances—not for nothing, I wasn’t.” He heaved a great breath into him, and swept back the fall of hair from his forehead. “I wouldn’t—not without a good reason, my dad knows that. I went in because I saw a man in the sea—”
Dominic was on his feet in a flurry of sand. “You saw a
? You mean, somebody in trouble? Where?”
“Off the point, where I was, where d’you think? There was
being pulled out in the race, anyhow, I’m
sure it was a man. I swam out to try and get to him,” said the boy, with bitter satisfaction in shifting the burden of his own frustration to more deserving shoulders,“but you had to take it on yourself to fish me out. So if he’s drowned by now, you know whose fault it is, don’t you?”
Dominic turned without a word, and set off at a run towards the water, his knees a little rubbery under him from shock and exertion. He had gone no more than a few yards when a shout from the dunes behind him brought him round again. The coast road from Maymouth over the neck of the Dragon’s Head to Pentarno dipped closer to the beach here, and a man had just left it to drop in a series of leaps towards the sands. He had come from Maymouth, by the angle at which he appproached. A tall, agile, sudden man who could glissade down loose sand like a skier, and run, once he reached level ground, with the grace of a greyhound and the candour of a child. He came up to them full tilt, and checked in a couple of light steps, already reaching down to hoist the kneeling boy to his feet, examine him in one sweeping glance, and visibly sigh relief.
“Paddy, what’s going on? Are you all right?” He turned an abrupt smile upon Dominic. “What’s he been up to? Did you have to haul him out, or something? But he can swim like a fish.”
“I haven’t been up to anything, Uncle Simon, honestly!” The injured voice grew shrill, and snapped off into a light, self- conscious baritone. Dominic had thought and hoped this might be the father, but even an uncle was very welcome, especially one as decisive as this.
Gratefully he blurted out what most needed saying: “He says he saw a man being dragged out to sea off the point. That’s why he went so far out. But I was up on the path there, and I didn’t see anyone except him. Maybe he’d have been all right—but I was afraid he might not. I thought I ought to fetch him in.”
“You were very right, and I’m most grateful. Even if he isn’t,” said Uncle Simon with the briefest of grins. He stood Paddy before him firmly, and shook him by the shoulders. “Now, what did you see? Somebody throwing his arms about? Shouting for help? What?”
“No, he wasn’t doing
. Not even swimming. It was like a head just showing now and then, and there was more of it sort of sloshing about under the water—like when you see a drift of wood or some old rags washing about.”
“It could have been just that, couldn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose so—only I don’t think it was.”
“O.K., I suppose we’d better have a hunt round.” He stripped off his sportscoat and shirt, and dropped them beside the boy. “Here, you stay here and mind these.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Dominic.
“Stay well inshore, then. And get out when you’ve had enough. I know this coast, you don’t, and you’ve tired yourself already.” He kicked his feet clear of his grey flannels. “Paddy, you can make yourself useful, too. Get up on the top path, and give us a hail if you see anything.”
He was off down the beach and into the water, Dominic after him. Paddy’s summer tan was only deep ivory compared with the tawny gold of Uncle Simon’s long, muscular back, and the fine, lean arms and legs that sliced through the water without a ripple. His hair was not more than a couple of shades darker. Once in the deep water he swam like a dolphin. With unaccustomed humility Dominic accepted his own lesser part, and forbore from following too far. A man who could move with so much confidence and certainty, off such a thorny coast, had the right to deploy his forces as he thought best, and be obeyed.
He stayed in the water until he felt himself tiring again, and then he came out and made his way along the rocks towards the Dragon’s mouth, as low towards the sea as he dared, watching Simon dive, and surface and dive again, achingly near to the cauldron of the rocks. The worst of the race was over now, the boiling had subsided a little. The swimmer worked methodically outward along the line of the receding tide, came back cautiously towards the rocks again where the worst spite was already spent, and clung to rest. He had torn his knuckles, Dominic saw a pink ooze of blood on the hand that grasped the rock.
“No dice, Paddy?” he called up to the boy above their heads.
“No, nothing.” The voice shouted down a little gruffly and anxiously: “You’d better come in, hadn’t you?” Even an Uncle Simon, presumably, may reach exhaustion finally, and with him Paddy was taking no chances. “It’s no good now, anyhow. Even if it
“All right—yes, I’ll come.”
He dropped carefully into the water and swam back to the sand, preferring that to the slower climb along the rocks. The boys came down, scrambling after him, Dominic with his clothes bundled untidily under his arm.
The tall, tawny, sinewy man stood wringing water out of his hair and streaming drops into the sand. Deep brown eyes surveyed them as they came up, and he twitched a shoulder and shivered a little. It was early September, and the evenings were growing cool. They began to dress in damp discomfort and a sudden chill of depression.
“No sign of anyone.”
“Maybe there wasn’t anyone,” said Paddy grudgingly. “But honestly, I still think there was.”
“All right, Paddy, you couldn’t have done more, anyhow. I’ll notify the coastguard, just in case, if that’ll make you feel better. That’s all we can do. What we all need now is a cup of tea, and some towels. And maybe a drop of rum in the tea. Come on up with us to the farm—Sorry, but what should I be calling you?”
“My name’s Dominic Felse. We’re staying at the Dragon.”
“Well, Dominic, come on home with us, and get warm and dry. Can’t let you run off now, without having thanked you properly.”