Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (7 page)

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs
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They rode down to the church promptly at ten, in Tim’s Land-Rover and Simon’s grey Porsche, dropping from the coastal road through the dunes by a pebble-laid track among the tamarisk hedges, silted over here and there by fine drifts of sand. The tang of salt and the straw-tinted pallor of salt-bleached grasses surrounded them, the fine lace of the tamarisks patterned the cloudless but windy aquamarine sky on either side. The small car led, with Simon driving it and George beside him. The Land-Rover, used to being taken anywhere and everywhere by Tim,, ambled after like a good-natured St. Bernard making believe to chase a greyhound pup. Tim and Sam Shubrough up in front, the Vicar behind for ballast, with the additional tackle they had brought along in case of need.

A formidable team, thought George, considering them. Simon and George himself would have passed for presentable enough physical specimens by most standards, but here they were the light-weights. Tim stood an inch or two less than either of them, but was half as broad again, and in hard training from the outdoor life he had led in all weathers. Sam Shubrough was a piece of one of the harder red sandstones of the district, animated. But the greatest surprise was the Reverend Daniel Polwhele.

The Vicar of St. Mary’s, Maymouth, stood six feet three in his socks, and looked like the product of several generations of selective breeding from the families of Cornish wrestlers. He wore the clothes of his calling with a splendid simplicity, and was neither set apart by them nor in any way apologetic for them. Shouldering a couple of crowbars, he looked as much at home as with a prayer-book, because he approached everything in the world with a large, curious and intelligent innocence, willing to investigate and be investigated.

He was probably forty-five, but dating him was the last thing you’d think of trying to do. He had a broad, bony Cornish face, without guile but inscrutable, and a lot of untidy, grizzled dark hair that he forgot to have cut, and eyes as thoughtful, direct and disconcerting as a small boy’s, but more tolerant.

The great waste of sand opened before them, and the great waste of sea beyond, a vast still plane and a vast vibrating plane. Through the tamarisk fronds they saw to the left the fanged head of the Dragon jutting out to sea, and nearer, at the southern end of the length of Pentarno sands, the low pebbly ridge of the Mortuary, dark with the rim of weed that built up there with every incoming tide. To their right was the clean, bright sand where young Paddy ran down to bathe every morning and every afternoon during the holidays. And here, tucked away on their left at the blown limit of the dunes, was St. Nectan’s church. They saw it first by the small, squat tower and the little peaked roof over the empty lantern where once there had been a bell. Then, as they entered the small, cleared bowl, the whole building stood before them; very small, plain as a barn, with tiny, high lancet windows pierced here and there without plan or pattern, a narrow, crooked, porchless door with a scratched dog-tooth border almost eroded away, and a rounded tympanum with a crude little carving that could barely be distinguished now.

“Saxon, all the base of the walls,” said the Vicar, bounding out of the back of the Land-Rover and approaching George as he stood contemplating the relic. “Windows and door and lantern very early Norman. The roof was re-slated not long before they gave it up as a bad job and built St. Mary’s. The foundations go right down to the rock. We keep losing this, but St. Mary’s will fall down first.”

The permanence and elemental quality of the sea pervaded the little church, the laboriously cleared graveyard with its stunted stones and erased names, the feathery curtains of tamarisks. Only the large grey hulk of the Treverra tomb, a stone cube rising about three feet above the surrounding ground, still obstinately asserted its own identity.

Before the tomb there was a railed-in pit, stone-lined and narrow, like a Victorian area. The iron gate swung freely on its newly-oiled hinges, and the fresh drift of sand was already filming over the steps of the staircase that descended to the low, broad door.

“I thought we should be sure to have an audience,” said Simon, coming from the Porsche with a large iron key in his hand.

Tim laughed. “We have. Don’t you know ’em yet? Half Pentarno and a fair sprinkling of Maymouth is deployed wherever there’s cover along the coast road, moving in on us quietly right now. By the time we’re down the steps and inside they’ll be massing all round the rim. Only just within sight, they won’t cramp you, but they won’t miss a thing.”

“One of my choirboys,” said the Vicar brightly, “borrowed my binoculars this morning. I didn’t ask him why. I fancy most of the trebles are up on the Dragon’s Head, passing them round. It’s more fun that way. Shall we go down?”

They already had their gear piled outside the sunken door. Simon trod gently down the steps, disturbing the furls of blown sand, and fitted Miss Rachel’s key into the huge lock. It turned with ready smoothness, a fact on which, George noted, nobody commented. Sam Shubrough’s benign red face was serene in ambush behind his noble whiskers, his eyes as placid as the sea. They entered the vault, letting in daylight with them to a segment of rock flooring, thinly and idly patterned with coils of sand that must have drifted under the door. It fitted closely, or there would surely have been much more. A well-sealed place, dry and clean, the walls faced with stone slabs, shutting out even the saltness of the sea air. Treverra had made himself snug.

Tim switched on the electric lamp he was carrying, and set it on the stone ledge that ran all round the walls at shoulder-height. Sam added a second one at the other side. And there they were, the two massive stone coffins, each set upon a plinth carved clear and left standing when the vault was cut deep into the rock. They occupied the whole centre of the chamber between them, a narrow passage separating them, a narrow space clear all round them. There was nothing else in the vault.

Plain altar tombs, their corners moulded into a cluster of pillars, the lips of their lids decorated with a scroll-work of leaves and vines, and a tablet on each lid brought to a high finish to carry the engraved epitaph. By these they were identifiable, even if the one coffin had not been larger than the other, and perhaps two or three inches higher.


O Mortal Man


This was Treverra. And the other one, close to his side as in life, was the lady, that frail beauty with the brilliant and daring face. She must have been every inch his match, thought George tracing the deliberate misquotation from Dryden spelled out in challenging capitals over her breast:




Did a man ever think of that? Surely not! It was a woman making that claim for herself. Not wanting to be understood; wanting, in fact, not to be understood, but delighting in the risk. Why should she give that impression even in dying? She pined away. Only somehow it hadn’t looked like a pining face.

The Vicar hefted the crowbars into the tomb. He stood holding them upright by his side, like the faithful sentinel, and looked again, long and thoughtfully, at the two coffins. “I’d like to say a prayer first.”

He prayed with his head unstooped and his eyes open, and in his own unorthodox way.

“Help us if we’re doing well,” he said, “and forgive us if we’re not. Lord, let there be peace on all here, living and dead.” He looked at the bold words on Morwenna’s coffin, with respect and liking in his face. “And reunion for all true lovers,” he said.

Simon said: “Amen!”

“And now, how do you want to handle it?”

Simon disposed his team as practically as the Vicar prayed, and with the same sense of purpose.

“I thought we could easily lever the lid from Jan’s coffin over to rest on hers. It’s more than broad enough to span the space between without overbalancing, and the drop’s not more than two and a half inches. We’ll cover her over with these thick felts—I brought them down on purpose—we don’t want to damage either stone. Let’s have two of you over on Morwenna’s side. Right. We three will hoist the stone up on the clear side first, and you can get some thin wedges in. Then we’ll see if there’s a deep rim to deal with, and ease your side out gradually if there is.”

George was at the head of the tomb, the Vicar in the middle, Simon at the foot. They got their crows started into the well-fitted chink of the stone, and eased it enough to get the first wedges in. After that it was merely a matter of patience. There was a rim to lift free on all sides, but a shallow one, and they got it clear without difficulty.

“It isn’t so massive,” said Tim, surprised. “Two of us could hoist it off in no time if we didn’t have to be so careful about damaging it.”

“True enough, but we do.” Simon felt along the under edge where his crow had prised, and grimaced. “Matter of fact, it has chipped a bit. Hmm, here, too. Not much, but it seems to fret easily.”

The Vicar measured the thickness of the stone slab with an unimpressed eye, and found it thinner than he had supposed. He stooped and set his shoulder under its deep overhang, and hoisted experimentally, and the thing perceptibly shifted.

“We could lift it, Simon. Between the five of us, and taking it steadily together, now she’s out of the socket we could manhandle her over. Try it!”

Simon eyed the stone doubtfully, and added another thickness of felt to the protective covering over Morwenna. “All right, we can but try. One at each corner, and I’ll take the middle here. Everybody set? Here we come, then. Gently—heave!”

The stone moved, slid along in response to their hoist a couple of inches, and disclosed a hair-line of darkness along the near edge of the coffin as the overhanging lip drew clear.

“It’s coming! Right, together—heave!” The hair-line of blackness became a pencil, an ebony ruler. Out of it came a breath of cold and the odour of the sea and of dust. Strange, the two together, as though the inimical elements had settled down together in the grave. “Again, heave!”

“Child’s play!” said Sam cheerfully, and shifted his large feet to brace himself for the next hoist.

“Once more—heave!” The stone slid with their persuasion, and again settled, and this time as they relaxed their efforts it swung in delicate counter-balance, ready at a touch to tilt gently and ponderously, and come to rest against the felt padding on the lady’s tomb. Nine inches of uncovered dark gaped below George’s face, and the odour, faint but persistent, made his nostrils dilate and quiver. A more precisely defined odour now, not just the vague salt tang of the sea. Something more homely, and extraordinarily elusive—he thought, in a sequence of kaleidoscopic images, of sheep in salt pastures, of wire-haired terriers in the rain, of washing Dominic’s woollies sometimes, long years ago, when Bunty had been ill.
Damp cloth
Woollen cloth

“Once more, and let her down gently. Ready—heave!”

Over slid the stone, and nested snugly on top of Morwenna’s coffin, only its edge still propped upon the side of Treverra’s own uncovered grave. The light of the two lamps fell obliquely into the stony space, and they all loosed their hold of the stone and leaned forward eagerly, craning to see what they had unveiled.

Only George, though with equal alacrity and a gasp as sharp as any, lunged back instead of forward. For that last strenuous lift and thrust had brought him up lying across the open coffin, almost face to face with the man who occupied it, as the stone slid from between them. The long, gaunt bony pallor of a lantern face gaped at him open-eyed from the dark, heavy jaw sagging towards a broad, barrel-staved chest in a dark grey pullover. Large, raw-boned hands jutted from the slightly short sleeves of an old black jacket, and lay half-curled against long black-clad thighs. And the smell of damp cloth and damp wool and damp human hair gushed up into their faces and sent them all into recoil after George.

Amazed and aghast, they stared and swallowed.

“If that’s Treverra,” said George with conviction, “I’m a Dutchman!”

The Vicar said: “Lord, have mercy on us all when the day comes! It isn’t Treverra, but it is Trethuan.”

“You know him?” George looked round at them all and saw by their appalled faces that he was, indeed, the only person present who did not know the incumbent of the coffin.

“I should. He’s—he was—my verger at St. Mary’s.”

George stared down at the long, lank body that lay so strangely shallowly in the stone pit, and his mind went back some hours, after an evasive memory, and recaptured it, and was confounded. It seemed Miss Rachel had complained unjustly of the unreliability of the young. Her truant gardener, even if he had not been able to communicate it, had had the best of all reasons for not turning up yesterday. He had picked his last apricot, and scythed his last churchyard. He lay, minus one shoe and sock, and reeking of the clammy, harsh damp of sea-water from feet to hair, stone dead in Jan Treverra’s coffin.


“Lift him out,” said Sam urgently, starting out of his daze. “He may not be dead.”

“He’s dead. Whoever he is, however he got here, he’s dead enough. Don’t touch him.” George looked at Simon, looked at the Vicar across the coffin. Four intent, strained faces stared back at him with stunned eyes. “I’m sorry, but it looks as if this has got out of hand. Out of our hands, anyhow. We’ve got a body here that was apparently alive a couple of days ago, and is very dead now. I’ve got no official standing here. Do you mind if I take charge for the moment? I suspect—I’m pretty sure—it isn’t going to be for long.”

“Whatever you say,” agreed Simon in a shaken voice. “This wasn’t in my brief.”

“Then leave him where he is. Don’t move anything. Tim, bring that lamp over, and let’s have a careful look in here.”

Shocked into silence, Tim brought it, and tipped its light full in upon the dead man. George felt carefully at the well-worn, respectable black suit, the lank, dun-coloured hair, the hand-knitted pullover, the laces and sole of the one remaining shoe. All of them left on his fingers the clinging, sticky feel of salt. He felt down past the bony shoulder, and touched a flat surface beneath the body, not cold and final like the stone, but with the live, grained feel of wood about it.

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 04 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs
11.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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