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Authors: Kate Sedley

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The Saint John's Fern

BOOK: The Saint John's Fern
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Also by Kate Sedley

Copyright

Chapter One

Clouds were gathering on the horizon, the first indication of a squall rolling in from the still distant sea, and a sharp tang of salt was borne on the freshening breeze. All about me lay the low curves of the moor, rising steeply in places to rocky outcrops of granite, poised between heaven and earth like mysterious elfin castles. Patches of fern and bracken glowed faintly bronze-coloured in the fluctuating light, a reminder of autumn, in spite of the warmth of the October morning.

Looking back now from the safety of old age – and seventy-five is a good ripe age for a man to reach – I can see myself clearly as I was then: young, vigorous, healthy, having just achieved my twenty-fifth birthday. And I marvel how unafraid of life I was. It never worried me what that fickle jade might have in store for me, for I had the utmost confidence in my ability to extricate myself from any and every untoward situation. (This is a slight exaggeration, perhaps, for I put my faith in God as well; but then, it was usually He who landed me in all my difficulties in the first place.)

Those of you, my children, and, maybe, grandchildren, who have taken the trouble to read these chronicles of mine so far, will know that when I flouted my dead mother’s wishes and forsook my novitiate with the monks at Glastonbury for the freedom of the open road, it seemed that God had determined to make use of me in some other fashion. He wasn’t going to let me escape my obligations quite so easily, and decided to employ my talent for unravelling those mysteries which had defeated the powers of other people, to bring various evil villains to book. That may sound somewhat conceited, but I believe we all have a special aptitude, an accomplishment not shared by everyone, and the ability to solve knotty problems was mine.

Mind you, I can’t pretend that I was always, if ever, a willing tool in the Almighty’s hands, and I had a good many one-sided arguments with Him, which, naturally enough, He totally ignored, simply giving me the choice to do His will or not – which, of course, as He knows full well, is no choice at all. And I had an uneasy feeling, as I made my way along the ancient ridge-road running across the great empty spaces of Dartmoor towards the town and port of Plymouth, that some agency other than my own free will was directing my footsteps.

To begin with, in this early October of 1477, I had been less than four months married – and very happily married – to my second wife, Adela. With her little son, Nicholas, now only two weeks short of his third birthday, and my daughter, Elizabeth, a mere four weeks younger again, I found myself, for the first time since early childhood, at the centre of a warm and happy life. The one-roomed cottage that I rented from Saint James’s Priory in Lewin’s Mead in the city of Bristol was undoubtedly cramped, partly because of my great height and girth, but we failed to notice it, unaware that we were treading on each other’s toes or that we were falling over one another. The two children had been friends from their very first meeting, while my love for Adela grew deeper by the day, as I had every proof that hers did for me. In addition, my mother-in-law from my first marriage was a kinswoman of my present wife, and was more than content to play grandmother to us all, visiting us from her home in Redcliffe at least two or three times every week.

In these circumstances of domestic bliss, with no sense that they were about to pall or grow stale, why had I suddenly been seized with my old, familiar restlessness? Why had I felt a terrible urge to visit Plymouth once again? My mother-in-law – for, having no other, I should always think of Margaret Walker as that – made no effort to hide her disappointment and disapproval, understandably regarding my desire to be off on my travels as a typical attempt to shirk my husbandly and parental responsibilities.

‘Put your foot down,’ I had overheard her advising Adela. ‘Start as you mean to go on or you’ll find yourself bringing up Nick and Elizabeth all on your own.’ I had imagined her lips folding themselves into an almost invisible line. ‘I know. Haven’t I raised Bess here practically single-handed since Lillis died? There’s plenty of money to be made peddling his wares hereabouts if Roger would only put his mind to it. No need for him to be wandering off to foreign parts.’

But Adela had only laughed. ‘Margaret, he’s not my prisoner. Roger knows that he’s free to come and go as he pleases. It was part of our bargain when we married, and, besides, I enjoy my own company now and then.’

No more had been said as the two women had, at that moment, become aware of my lurking presence, but I realized even more fully what I had known all along, that I had married a woman in a thousand; and I shuddered to remember how nearly I had let her slip through my fingers. Nevertheless, the desire to escape in no way abated, and at the beginning of August, a mere eight weeks after my wedding to Adela, I set out southwards, with Plymouth as my destination. But it wasn’t until that warm October morning, the goal at last within reach, that I suddenly began to question this strange urge that possessed me. Why, in spite of my happiness with my wife and children, had I felt impelled to leave them? And why had the town of Plymouth, which I had visited only once before, four years earlier, sprung so insistently and vividly to mind?

I stopped in my tracks, in the grip of a deep and most unwelcome suspicion. ‘Lord,’ I demanded aloud, ‘is this Your doing? Tell me! Is it?’ There was, unsurprisingly, no answer, but I had no need of one. I dropped my pack – now considerably lighter than when I had left home – to the ground and leant heavily on my cudgel in order to ease my aching shoulders. ‘Very well!’ I muttered angrily. ‘That’s that! I’m retracing my steps. You can’t force me to continue.’

The unexpected sound of wheels made me jump and glance around, and there at my elbow, blowing gustily through its nostrils, was an old brown cob harnessed to a cartload of peat. The driver, perched on his box and looking down at me with a pair of smiling blue eyes, was almost the same colour as his horse, his deeply tanned face surmounting leggings and tunic of coarse brown homespun, a piece of sacking draped over his head to protect it from all weathers.

‘I’m going as far as Plympton Priory,’ he informed me. ‘If you’d care for a ride, chapman, jump up.’

He must have thought me a great gaby for I had neither seen nor heard the cart approaching until it was alongside me, and consequently I stood goggling at its driver for several seconds in open-mouthed astonishment.

‘Th-thank you,’ I stammered at last, and before I had time to recollect my resolve to proceed no further, I had clambered up beside him, my pack and cudgel lodged uncomfortably at my feet.

‘Where are you making for?’ the carter enquired, as, in response to a flick of the reins, the old brown cob moved sluggishly forward.

‘Plymouth. Er – that is,’ I faltered, ‘I haven’t quite made up my mind.’

‘Know the town, do you?’ my companion asked, ignoring my indecision. ‘Been there before, perhaps?’

‘Once,’ I acknowledged.

‘Get around a lot in your trade, I dare say. Where have you come from?’

‘Bristol. My wife and family are there. But I was born and brought up in Wells.’

My companion shook his head. ‘Don’t know the place. Nor Bristol, though I know
of
it, of course. What’s the news in that part of the country, then? You must have plenty of truck with London. What’s happening there?’

I eased my cramped legs. ‘Word is that all’s quiet in the capital at the moment. The Duke of Clarence is still a prisoner in the Tower. Do you know about that?’

‘A rumour or two has reached us,’ said the carter, nodding, ‘even in Tavistock, where I live, but that was some time ago. What’s the upshot?’

‘At the moment, there is none. It seems the Duke has neither been released nor yet brought to trial, and what will be the outcome no one can say for certain. The King’s forgiven his brother so often in the past that the general opinion is that he’ll do so again. But for the time being, at least, while Clarence is imprisoned, we’re spared the threat of further civil war.’

My new acquaintance grimaced. ‘As bad as that, was it? We heard that the Duke had been making mischief again, but not how serious it was. Well, well! But I don’t suppose it’ll affect us much down here, whatever happens.’ And the conversation drifted towards more trivial matters: the bad state of the roads the unseasonable warmth of the weather, the rapidity with which the nights were already drawing in.

As we approached Plympton Priory, my companion suddenly asked, ‘Do you have anywhere to stay in Plymouth?’ And at the first shake of my head he added, ‘I’ll give you my daughter’s direction, in Bilbury Street.’

‘That – that’s very kind of you,’ I stammered. ‘But as I said just now, I haven’t really decided—’

‘Better still,’ he interrupted, ‘if you care to wait for me while I deliver this load of peat to the priory, I’ll take you on to Plymouth myself. My wife was saying only last night that neither of us has seen Joanna for quite some time, nor our son-in-law and the grandchildren, and that one of us – meaning me, of course – ought to make the effort to find out how they’re faring. So here’s my chance. I’ve no more deliveries today and if you’ll be so good as to give me your company, it’ll make the journey that much less tedious, and you’ll be fixed up with a comfortable billet into the bargain. What do you say?’

What could I say in the face of so much kindness and goodwill? God was forcing my hand and there was nothing I could do about it unless I wished to appear worse than churlish. Suppressing a sigh, I gave in with as much good grace as I could muster and thanked him with a spurious heartiness.

‘If you’re certain it’s not too much trouble—’ I added, but my companion cut me short.

‘No trouble in the world. That’s settled then.’ He spoke with undisguised satisfaction.

Plympton Priory is an Augustinian foundation, and I was interested to note that the canons wore little black birettas on the crowns of their heads, which, upon enquiry, I was informed was because they were untonsured. Their cassocks were mainly woven from a very fine wool, and the whole place exuded wealth and luxury. I was reminded of something that I had either read or been told a long time ago, probably during my years at Glastonbury, to the effect that the Augustinian Black Canons were always well-shod, well-fed and well-clothed; that they went abroad in the world, mixed with whom they liked and talked at table. I recalled my youthful envy of an order whose rules were so far removed from those of the Benedictines, and my dissatisfaction with the life that my mother had chosen for me had increased.

‘Well, let’s be on our way,’ said the carter, whose name I had by now learnt was Peter Threadgold, climbing up on the box seat of the empty cart and indicating to me that I should do the same.

We had been given a dinner of soup and bread and cheese in the priory kitchen, during which time, by the greatest good fortune, the squally shower that I had earlier noted on the horizon, had passed over Plympton and was now moving further inland, towards the heart of the moor. The spears of stinging rain had given place once more to a hazy, autumnal sunshine that made every leaf, every blade of grass sparkle with a myriad rainbow drops of moisture. The track was rutted and green with weeds, revived by their sudden drink, and the smell of the river running broad and deep on our left, was, for a furlong or two, all-pervasive. But then the salt tang of the sea assaulted my nostrils and other scents were lost as I experienced yet again the old, familiar prickle of excitement.

BOOK: The Saint John's Fern
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