Novel No 4 of what?
Novel No 4 of my series Highwaypersons. Its subtitle will be Blood in the Heather: Rumours, Rebels and Rogues. It will be the last in the series – for now, at least. I hope you have read the first three of these novels. I have already posted on this blog a short story linking book 2, The King’s Justice, and book 3, The Stallion Man. After that I may post a few excerpts from Novel No 4, Blood in the Heather: Rumours, Rebels and Rogues, to get you in the mood for the whole thing.
Novel No 4 follows Novel No 3 but what happens in between?
I am now posting another short story, linking books 3 and 4, following the adventures of Helen de Clare. This will consist of four chapters, each posted on a different day in the next week or two.
Chapter 1: The Fat, the Fit and the Fanciful.
“It’s just what I was looking for. Tell the owner I’m happy to rent it right away.” Helen de Clare smiled at the landlord’s agent as they completed the tour of the big house on the edge of Pembroke. “Send the paperwork to me at the vicarage and I’ll sign and return the next day.”
“Thank you, madam. Have you read the conditions of the lease?” asked the agent, Meredith Evans. His pale, chubby face with its bulbous nose seemed to be forever smiling from under his fashionable grey wig. He was tall and broad. His waistcoat struggled to contain his spreading middle, whilst his breeches hung slack on his legs. Helen compared him in her mind unfavourably with the more active, athletic men who had so often filled her life.
She replied, “Not in detail, but I trust they are essentially as you have indicated.”
“Quite so. Now, therefore there is nothing to prevent you and your children from moving in at your earliest convenience, along with whatever servants you will be employing.”
They strolled out of the front door and around to the stable block. The agent mopped his brow on a handkerchief and said, “Might I enquire, madam, how you come to be in need of a property to rent at this time? I am given to understand that you are fortunate enough to own many houses in various parts of this principality.”
“Your understanding is correct. However, the only ones currently fit for habitation are already occupied and I do not wish to evict any tenants who have paid their rent and done nothing to incur my displeasure. I myself am less fortunate, in that the Church insists that I vacate the vicarage where I have been living since my husband’s death, as it is required for his successor now that one has been chosen.”
He said, “I see, madam. Then it is most fortuitous that this house has remained vacant these past two months.”
He looked nervously along the line of empty stables as they came to Helen’s horse which was tethered there. She looked at the man with a raised eyebrow. He said, “I hope you will not count it impertinent if I should ask if you will require the services of a gardener? Or shall I tell Mr O’Neil to seek employment elsewhere? He has been very useful in looking after the house as well as the gardens since it has been vacant, and he comes with an excellent reference from his previous employer in Ireland.”
“Thank you for enquiring. I see the grounds are more extensive than at my present residence and the elderly man who tends them would doubtless find these somewhat more than he can cope with. Is Mr O’Neil in good health?”
“It would appear so, madam. He has made no complaint and had attended to all his duties and more over the last few months.”
“Where does he live?”
He pointed at a door beyond the nearest stable. “There is accommodation here in the stable-block, but at present he is residing in the servants’ quarters in the main house. We agreed it would be more convenient. But, naturally, the decision will be yours now.” He coughed and shuffled his feet. “Err, madam, I feel obliged to tell you there is another matter I have omitted to mention thus far.”
Helen had untethered her horse and stood looking at Meredith as she took the reins into her left hand and prepared to mount. He said, “There is an old woman who comes here, as she goes to many of your new neighbours, in search of alms. Mr O’Neil has been kind enough to let her share some of his food and to give her, I believe, a few coppers.”
Meredith looked towards the garden as he added, “There is also what appears to be a small turret at the furthest extremity of the garden. Some call it a chapel. I suspect that some of your predecessors may have been Papists. However, I can assure you that there are no longer any relics or objects that might encourage superstition within. I mention this, merely because the old woman often goes in there to pray or to enjoy the solitude. Perhaps you would find it in you to permit such an arrangement to continue? I am sure she is quite harmless.”
“Thank you for informing me. I see no reason to object. Now I will leave you and return with my children, servants and portable possessions on the morrow. I wish you a pleasant day.”
With that, she mounted her horse. She did not make use of the mounting block, neither did she accept the help proffered by Meredith Evans. Many men had been as impressed by her athleticism as by her beauty. As Helen rode away, her long dark hair blowing across her face in the breeze, the gardener came out of a side door and exchanged a few words with the agent.
Suspicions and speculation.
By the time Helen and her family had moved in, O’Neil had taken it upon himself to move out into the apartment at the end of the stable block. On the first day, Helen caught only an occasional glimpse of him as he went about his duties, mainly at the far end of one of the gardens.
One evening at dinner, after the family had been in their new home for a few days, the ten-year-old Lewis said, “That gardener’s a strange fellow. Hardly says a word.”
His sixteen-year-old brother, Kenneth, said. “It’s probably because he doesn’t speak English or Welsh very well. I can hardly make out a word he says, his Irish accent is so strong.”
Their mother said, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not here to talk, especially to you boys. He’s here to work. And I don’t want you three distracting him all the time.”
There was silence as they all concentrated on eating for a while. Kenneth looked pensive before saying, “I don’t know if he’s such a good gardener.”
Helen asked, “Why do you say that?”
“He spends all his time at the far end, digging it over, time after time, when there are beds near the house that don’t look as if he’s touched them.”
Lewis sneered, “What do you know about gardening? You never do any.”
“I sometimes used to talk to old Emlyn who looked after the vicarage gardens.”
Their eight-year-old brother, David, said, “You know who he reminds me of?” He paused for dramatic effect before enlightening his less-than-fascinated family. “Charlie!”
Helen glared at him as she said, “Charles Butler? The Jacobite spy and plotter of rebellions? I hope you are joking!”
Lewis said, “He’s nothing like him! Charlie was a well-spoken gentleman not an Irish labourer. And he was dark. This fellow’s got red hair.”
David replied, “I’m not saying he’s exactly like him. He just reminds me of him.”
A servant cleared away their plates and another brought the next course.
Helen said, “What about the old woman? Have you seen her?”
Kenneth said, “Yes. She came yesterday and Cook gave her something to eat. Then she went and sat in the chapel or whatever it is.”
David added, “She seems to understand Hugh. I’ve seen them chatting.”
Kenneth asked, “Is his name Hugh?”
David nodded. “That’s what she calls him.” Seeing his brother’s furrowed brow, he asked, “Why?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I heard of a Hugh O’Neil once. He led a rebellion in Ireland against Queen Elizabeth.”
Lewis looked excited. “What if it is Charlie? He’s from Ireland and a sort of rebel leader. It’s the kind of thing he would choose if he wanted a false name.”
Kenneth said, “Don’t be stupid. He’s nothing like Charlie. You just said so.”
“Yes but, what if he’s wearing a wig? He often has. I’ll bet he can speak like an Irishman if he wants. He does come from there.”
Helen said, “This conversation is silly. Charles Butler is a wanted man, a fugitive. He narrowly escaped justice near here just over a month ago. He’ll be far away by now. Probably abroad. Now be quiet and eat your dinner,”
Kenneth looked pensive again for a minute and said, “You know, Charles is clever. He might think everyone would think as you do. Staying here as a gardener might be a good idea. He might be plotting again or just waiting until everyone’s forgotten about him before he tries to leave the country.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! And what of the old lady? Do you think she’s another Jacobite?”
They returned their attention to their food. When they had finished, David said, “She’s not very old, if you ask me.”
Helen asked, “Who? That old woman?”
“Yes. She’s got grey hair and walks with a stick, but her voice doesn’t sound old.” As Helen and Kenneth glared at David, Lewis said, “I know that coat she wears is old and threadbare, but the dress she wears under it looks quite good.”
Helen said, “I expect someone took pity on her and gave her a dress they didn’t want.”
Lewis replied, “And another thing. She’s fat. Well, at least plump. Not like someone who eats only what others can spare. If it wasn’t for her hair and the stick you’d think she was not much older than you and not very poor either.”
Helen snapped, “That’s enough! Stop being silly. And don’t pester either Mr O’Neil or the old lady. I don’t want you to make any trouble.”