Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (6 page)

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs
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Simon stood back from the wall, and looked the most celebrated of the Treverras full in the eyes.

George thought: They really seem to be looking at each other, measuring each other, even communicating. And although they look so different, isn’t there something intensely alike about them? Both privateers, a little off the regular track, not quite manageable by ordinary rules, not quite containable by ordinary standards.

“He had one ship trading across the Atlantic, and three or four small craft fishing and coasting here. And smuggling, of course. They all did it. It wasn’t any crime to them, it was business and sport—”

“Could it be,” whispered Dominic in Tamsin’s ear, “that Simon has his tenses wrong?”

She turned her head so rapidly that the fine red hair fanned out and tickled his nose. She gave him a lightning look, and again evaded his eyes.

“I hope they got everything away safely last night,” he said even more softly. He couldn’t resist the innocent swagger, and it was hardly disobeying orders at all. This time she didn’t look at him, but he saw her lip quiver and her cheek dimple, and she said to him out of the corner of a motionless mouth, like an old lag at exercise:

“You certainly are a sharp young man, Dominic Felse, be careful you don’t cut yourself.”

“And here’s his wife. Morwenna, her name was.”

“She was lovely,” said Bunty, surveying the unexpected charcoal drawing on grey, rough paper, heightened with white chalk and red. Fragile but striking, like the creature it encompassed. Fine, fiery dark eyes, a delicately poised head balancing a sheaf of piled black hair.

Miss Rachel beamed satisfaction from the background.

“I used to be thought very like her when I was younger.”

“Actually,” murmured Tamsin in Dominic’s ear, “she’s the living image of Jan, if you cover up that jaw of his.”

“And these are the famous epitaphs?” George stepped close to the two framed photographs on the wall below Morwenna’s portrait.

O Mortal Man, whom Fate

“You’ll find it easier from these transcriptions. Those photographs were made last time the church was cleared of sand, fifteen years or so ago. Whoever took them did a nice job on the angle of the light, and the lettering isn’t much eroded, but it’s eccentric. Here’s the text.”

Simon read aloud, in the, full, rapt voice of self-forgetfulness, as though the reflected image of Treverra stirred within him; and it was not often, Tamsin told herself, watching, that Simon forgot himself.

‘O Mortal Man, whom Fate may send
To brood upon Treverra’s End,
Think not to find, beneath this Stone,
Mute Witness, bleached, ambiguous Bone.
Faith the intrepid Soul can raise
And pilot through the trackless Maze,
Pierce unappalled the Granite Gloom,
The Labyrinth beyond the Tomb,
And bring him forth to Regions bright,
Bathed in the Warmth of Love and Light,
Where year-long Summer sheds her Ease
On golden Sands and sapphire Seas.
There follow, O my Soul, and find
Thy Lord as ever true and kind,
And savour, where all Travellers meet,
The last Love as the first Love sweet.’

“That was for himself. And this one is hers. Some say Jan wrote it before he died, knowing they wouldn’t be parted long. Some say she wrote it herself in his style. Sometimes I think it’s more remarkable than the other.

‘Carve this upon Morwenna’s Grave:
Shed here no Tears. No Saint could die
More Blessed and Comforted than I,
For I confide I shall but rest
A Moment in this stony Nest,
Then, raised by Love, go forth to find
A Country dearer to my Mind,
And touching safe the sun-bright Shore,
Embrace my risen Lord once more’.

There was a brief and curiously magical silence, and no one wanted to break it. It was not that the poetry was so lofty, but rather that it was so elusive, as though every phrase in it had at least two meanings, and therefore at any line you could lose your way, but if at every line you took the correct turning you would find yourself at the centre of a maze, always an achievement, and sometimes a revelation.

“Any reactions?” asked Simon, poking a deliberately brutal finger through the web of hallucination. “Apart from the fact that here was a bloke who knew his folk-verse and his Dryden equally well?”

Tamsin prodded Dominic in the ribs unexpectedly. “Go ahead!” she hissed in his ear. “Say something profound!”

Startled, he blurted out exactly what was in his mind. “They make the after-life sound like a Christmas sunshine cruise to the Bahamas.”


YOU,” SAID MISS RACHEL, waiting for Paddy in the arched gateway of the kitchen-garden with silver-hilted stick at the slope, like a superannuated angel drafted to the gate of paradise in an emergency, “you are a thoroughly bad boy.”

“Yes,” said Paddy in glum resignation, “I thought I should be.” He hoisted the outsize basket from his carrier and dangled it sulkily. “Well, you won. I’m here, and I’ll pick apricots, even if I won’t like it. What more do you want?”

“Come inside here, and put that basket down for a few minutes. I want to talk to you.”

He complied, but with an audible groan. He’d ridden up from the farm on his reluctant errand with nothing worse in his mind than scorn for all women and their conspiratorial tactics, a feeling which gave him a certain sense of detachment and superiority. A baby could have seen through this move to keep him away even from the sand-dunes on this of all mornings. His mother again, of course, enlisting Miss Rachel’s aid. What else could it mean? Only women did things like that. Men came right out and said: “If I see you within a quarter of a mile of St. Nectan’s I’ll skin you.” But women put their scheming heads together and concocted a job for you to do somewhere else.

“I suppose you and Mummy worked out how long it would take me to fill this thing,” he said, dropping the basket on the grass, “and took jolly good care to make it an all-morning job. All right, I’ll fill it. And she’ll have to get down to it and bottle the lot today, and serve her right.”

“Your mother has nothing whatever to do with this. If you want to blame anyone for it,” she said grimly, “you can blame yourself and me—no one else. You went straight out from here, yesterday, and hunted out Simon. After I’d expressly told you not to! Didn’t you?”

“All right,” he said, roused and scowling, “I did. How did you know about it? But I’d have told you, anyhow, if you’d asked me.”

“Simon let it out, last night. Oh, quite innocently, don’t worry,
didn’t know you’d gone flatly against my orders and your parents’ wishes. Paddy Rossall, how

“They asked for it,” said Paddy, goaded. “If you want to know, I
going to go after Simon, by the time I got here I’d got over it, and it seemed mean and silly. But it didn’t seem mean and silly to
, did it, to get together with you just to balk me? That’s different, isn’t it? It doesn’t count if you gang up on your son, but it’s a crime if you do the same to your mother.”

“Now, you stop this nonsense this minute,” commanded the old lady, quivering with indignation. “Your parents have a perfect right to check you—and to expect at least obedience from you, if nothing else. They’re responsible for you, of course they’re entitled to take whatever steps they think necessary for your good. You don’t realise how much you owe to them, or how badly you’re behaving to them. You take all their love and care for granted. Well, let me tell you, young man, if you had any gratitude in you, you’d never be able to think of enough ways to repay them for all they’ve done for you.”

He couldn’t bear it. To have the most secret, penitent and loving promptings of his heart ripped out and brandished in front of him, made cheap and public and sanctimonious like the disgusting parables in some old-fashioned moral book for children—it was too much. He reacted violently against it, with flooding colour and reckless rage, crying out things he didn’t mean and didn’t believe, in an effort to restore at least a balance of decency.

“So only one side’s got any rights! What about
rights? Did I ask them to have me?
could have helped it, couldn’t they? But
couldn’t, I didn’t have any choice. I’m their
, remember?”

Whether Miss Rachel can be said at this point to have taken any actual decision to resort to extreme measures, or whether she was quite simply pushed over the edge of action before she realised it, the result was the same. She drew herself to her full modest height, looking more like Queen Victoria than Paddy had ever seen her, and in a half-smothered voice of shocked and royal rage, with judgment in every syllable, she said what could never again be unsaid.

” said Miss Rachel, full into his angry, miserable face, “you are


His first instinct was quite simply not to hear her, to pick up his basket and back out of this argument now, before events overwhelmed him. Such a thing could not have been said, and therefore it had not been said. He cast one desperate glance round him, looking for a way of escape.

“Which tree am I supposed to—to start—”

It was no use, the words were still there in his ears, stinging like an echo, and he could not get rid of them by pretending they were mere meaningless sound. His second impulse was to laugh. If this was her way of punishing him, it was a splendidly silly one. But she stood there squarely before him, watching his face intently and maintaining her unrelenting gravity, and there wasn’t the ghost of a chance that she was just being spiteful. The laugh collapsed in ruins. He stared at her, his eyes enormous and stricken, pushing the inconceivable thing away from him with one last convulsive effort at regaining the normal ground of everyday.

“It isn’t true,” he said passionately.

“However angry I may be with you,” said Miss Rachel harshly, “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No,” he owned forlornly, “that’s right, you wouldn’t.” He began to shake. “But I
be, I
to be, I
. I
start being somebody else—”

“Now, don’t be silly. You’re old enough to understand these things, and there’s no need to get upset about it. Here, come and sit down, and listen to me.”

She took him by the arm, unresisting, and led him to the stone seat under the sunny wall, and there plumped him down before her, diminished strangely in years, a lost small boy. Big, stunned eyes stared at, and round, and through her, and saw nothing at all. She tapped his cheek lightly, and nothing whatever happened. It took quite a sharp slap to startle those eyes back into focusing, and jolt a spark of warmth and feeling back into the fixed face.

“Oh, come along, now, you know people often adopt children, there’s nothing so strange about it. Tim and Phil adopted you, you’re
their own child. They took you legally, as a very young baby, from a friend of theirs whose wife had died. And don’t run away with the idea that you were chosen for the part, either. They took you against their inclinations at the time, out of pity, because your father didn’t want you.”

That brought the live and angry colour back to his cheeks, and a flare to his eyes that still looked like mutiny, even in the face of the firing-squad.

“Yes, you heard me correctly. Didn’t want you! He could perfectly well have afforded to pay for proper care for you, but a baby was a nuisance to him. He took advantage of the fact that Phil had lost a child of her own, and couldn’t have another, and he worked on her feelings until she took you off his hands. That’s how much your father cared about you. Tim and Phil took you out of pity, and they’ve loved and cared for you ever since. And this is how you behave to them in return! You’ll see,” said Miss Rachel with stern emphasis, “if you go on like this,
no one
will be able to love you.”

Somewhere deep inside him that started an echo that hurt and frightened him. He shut himself fiercely about it to contain the fear and pain, unwilling to give her the satisfaction of having moved him.

“I don’t believe it,” he said obstinately. But he did, that was the worst part of it, that he couldn’t even hope for it to be a lie. “You’re making it up, just to scare me.”

“You know quite well I’m doing nothing of the kind. And there’s no occasion at all for being scared. You’re theirs now, and you know they love you, even if you don’t always deserve it. And you know that everything will go on just the same as always. This doesn’t alter anything. Except, I hope, the way
look at things from now on.”

Doesn’t alter anything! Only the whole of his world, and worse still, the heart in his body and the mind in his head, and the memory of a lordly childhood he had always supposed to be simple, unassailable, and his by right.

In the flat, practical voice of shock, which she had no way of recognising, he said: “Why did they never tell me? I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d known all along, I could have got used to it.”

“That was their mistake. I know it, I always told them so. They thought you need never know, because it happened just about the time they were thinking of moving here to Pentarno. By the time they realised how foolish they’d been, they’d left it so late they didn’t know how to go about it. So they kept quiet and hoped for the best. But
think it’s high time you knew what you really owe to them. Maybe now you’ll show a little more gratitude and consideration.”

“I didn’t know I wasn’t. I mean—I didn’t know I had to be more grateful than other boys—”

“Now, there’s no need to feel like that about it. You just think it over quietly, while you pick the apricots for your mother, and see if you can’t make up your mind to behave a bit better to her in future.”

He looked at his hands, which were gripping the edge of the stone seat so hard that the knuckles were white. He wasn’t sure whether he could detach them without having them start shaking again, but he tried it with one, cautiously, and it was quite steady. He picked up the basket. Everything seemed to work much the same as before, and yet he felt a long, long way from his own body, as though he were looking on at a play.

“All right. Which tree shall I start on?”

She told him, piloted him to it, not without certain careful sidelong glances at the chilled quietness of his face, and left him to his labours, firmly determined not to fuss over him now and undo the good she had done. He’d needed a sharp lesson. All boys get above themselves at times, even the nicest. It would be disastrous to hang over him anxiously at this stage, and betray the fact that he had only to manufacture a look of distress to twist her round his finger again. So she tapped away stubbornly out of the kitchen-garden, without once looking back. It was going to take her the whole of the next hour to convince herself that she had done the right, the necessary, the only possible thing, and there was not now, and never would be in the future, any cause to regret it. But she would manage it eventually, and then forget that she had ever been in doubt. What she did must be right, as it always had been.

Paddy set the basket on the edge of the gravel path, and began methodically to strip the apricot tree. Somewhere infinitely distant and dark, his mind groped feverishly after the full awful implications of what he had heard. Fifteen is a vulnerable age. Once the possibility was presented to him, he found it only too easy to believe that nobody could love him, and to imagine that nobody ever had. When he came to consider himself in this new light, stripped of privilege, he didn’t find himself a particularly lovable specimen. The people you rely on, the people you’re sure of, even though you don’t deserve them—what happens when you suddenly lose them? Like having the world jerked out from under your feet as neatly as a mat.

Now he wasn’t sure of them or of anything. Oh, he knew, just as positively as ever, that they were wonderful, that he adored them, that they would never let him down. They’d always been marvellous to him, and always would be; that wasn’t what dismayed him. But now he found himself horribly afraid that it was only out of pity for his forlorn estate, unwanted by his father, a rejected nuisance, badly in need of someone to take pity on him. The shock of feeling himself uprooted, of not even knowing who or what he was, was bad enough. But the shock of turning to look again at the parents he had hitherto taken for granted as his undisputed, cherished and misused property, of seeing them suddenly strange, forbearing and kind, and not his at all, only suffering him out of the goodness of their hearts, of feeling his inside liquefy with fearful doubts as to whether they could ever truly have loved him or felt him to be theirs—this was too much for him to grasp or face. He shrank from it into protective numbness, clinging desolately to the job he had been given to do, and dreading the time when the shell of habit would crack and fall away, and leave him naked to the chill of what he knew. Furiously he plucked apricots he was not aware of seeing and loaded them into the basket he hardly knew he was filling.


“You might,” said Miss Rachel, making an unexpected appearance in the library at about half past eleven, “take out some ginger-beer and cake for Paddy. I daresay he’d like something by now.”

“I daresay he would,” agreed Tamsin, “if he hasn’t eaten himself sick on apricots. I know which I’d rather have.”

“Paddy isn’t afraid of spoiling his figure,” said Miss Rachel nastily.

Tamsin rose from her work with a sigh, and took the peace-offering the old lady had prepared with her own hands. And very nice, too, she thought. Chocolate layer cake, and the almond biscuits he likes best. What did he do to be in such high favour to-day? Or what’s she trying to smooth over? Come to think of it, why doesn’t she take it out to him herself?

She was back very quickly, and still carrying the tray.

“He’s not there.”

“Nonsense, he must be there.” Miss Rachel’s resolutely confident face grew indignant at the suggestion that things could slip out of the comfortable course she had laid down for them. “You haven’t looked properly.”

“Under every leaf. He isn’t there, and his bike isn’t there, and his basket isn’t there. And the apricots from that first tree aren’t there, either. He must have worked like a demon. Probably to get away and down to the dunes before the matinée’s over.”

“Ah!” said Miss Rachel, seizing gratefully on a solution which permitted her to keep her self-righteousness, her indignation against him, and her cheering conviction that children were as tough as badgers. “That’s probably what it is. The little wretch! I just hope Tim will send him home with a flea in his ear.”

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs
11.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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