Authors: Kate Sedley
Tags: #tpl, #rt
Table of Contents
THE GOLDSMITH’S DAUGHTER
THE LAMMAS FEAST
NINE MEN DANCING
THE MIDSUMMER ROSE
THE BURGUNDIAN’S TALE
THE PRODIGAL SON
THE THREE KINGS OF COLOGNE
THE GREEN MAN
THE DANCE OF DEATH
WHEEL OF FATE
THE MIDSUMMER CROWN
THE TINTERN TREASURE
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This first world edition published in Great Britain 2003 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
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This first world edition published in the USA 2003 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS INC of
595 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022.
eBook edition first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Sedley.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Nine men dancing. - (A Roger the Chapman mediaeval mystery)
1. Roger the Chapman (Fictitious character) - Fiction
2. Peddlers and peddling - Fiction
3. Missing persons - Investigation - England - Fiction
4. Great Britain - History - Edward IV, 1461 – 1483 - Fiction
5. Detective and mystery stories
ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0096-9 (epub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
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Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland
I suppose it’s an integral part of the human condition that everyone, on some occasion or another, should experience feelings of guilt; and this applies particularly to men with wives and children who, like me, value their independence and need, from time to time, to escape from the ties of family life. (At least, I used to when I was younger. Now that I’m an old man, I have to submit, however unwillingly and ungraciously, to the petty tyrannies of my sons and daughter; especially the latter, who persists in regarding me, now that I’m in my seventies, as just another of her offspring. The idiot one!)
Certainly, after an autumn and early winter of intense domestic activity, I was more than ready, following the Christmas festivities of that year of 1478, to take my chapman’s pack and be out on the open road again, with the solitude and silence that only a winter landscape can offer. Even before the church services had run their course, before the waits had finished singing carols from door to door, before the Boy Bishop had preached his sermon and doffed his mitre for another year, I was dreaming of sodden bracken squelching underfoot, of the naked trunks of birch trees seen tall and straight through a mesh of purple twigs, of frostbitten grass and early morning, knee-high mists …
Fortunately for me, my wife, Adela, was the most understanding of women and rarely made over-exacting claims on my time and patience. By the middle of January, she knew that I was near the end of my tether. Of course, she could easily have pointed out that with three small children, one of them a baby of six months, to look after – not to mention the flea-bitten mongrel who had attached himself to us and become the household pet – she, too, was at the limit of her endurance. But she didn’t. The Virgin only knows why not! Adela wasn’t a saint by any stretch of the imagination, but her love for me gave her a tolerance for my loutish, unutterably selfish behaviour that I didn’t deserve and of which I took endless advantage.
Our two elder children, Nicolas and Elizabeth, were now four years old, with only a fortnight’s difference in their ages. This apparent phenomenon is easily explained. Nick is Adela’s son by her first husband, Owen Juett, while Bess is my daughter by my first wife, Lillis Walker. The baby, Adam, was born on the last day of June, a year after Adela and I were married. His half-brother and -sister, who were (and still are) devoted to one another, had not taken kindly to his appearance in their midst and had, for a time, deeply resented him. But they were by now more reconciled to his arrival, even condescending, on occasions, to entertain him. Nevertheless, it had not been an easy six months.
To make matters even more difficult, I had inherited a house; a gentleman’s town house in Small Street, Bristol, where we lived. Prior to this, our accommodation had been a one-roomed cottage, rented from Saint James’s Priory in Lewin’s Mead, outside the city walls. How I came into possession of this house belongs to an earlier story, and I refuse to go into details again here. But what, at first, had seemed like the answer to prayer, turned out to be a double-edged sword. The resentment of many of our erstwhile friends to this outstanding piece of good fortune was palpable. That a mere, common, low-born chapman from the small Somerset town of Wells – who didn’t even have the courtesy or common sense to be born a native Bristolian – should become the owner of a two-storey dwelling with a yard and a privy at the back, was more than most of them could stomach, and they choked on their own bile. They had long envied the fact that, trained for a life in Holy Orders, which I had rejected, I could read and write. Now, here I was, set up for a life of ease.
Well, that was their version of my future!
Like our former friends, our new neighbours in Small Street were equally resentful and waited eagerly to see what a pigsty we would make of the place. After all, our home now consisted of a hall, a parlour, a buttery, a kitchen and three bedrooms. It was impossible that we should have enough sticks of furniture to equip the house in any sort of comfort. What no one knew but ourselves was that after the last favour I had done for the Duke of Gloucester – or the last commission I had carried out for His Grace, as Timothy Plummer would have preferred to phrase it – Prince Richard had given me two gold pieces for my pains. This had been more than enough to furnish the house, if not luxuriously, at least adequately, and yet again, my detractors were frustrated in their desire to see me fall flat on my face. What they failed to realize was that, in the future, I should have to work twice as hard at my peddling in order to keep us in the style to which we had all too easily, and in very short order, grown accustomed.
This was the situation, then, after the twelve days of Christmas, 1478, when I began, once again, to feel the well-remembered itch to be free of domestic ties and encumbrances and to take to the road with my pack and cudgel.
‘Go!’ said Adela. ‘Get out from under my feet before you drive me mad with your grumblings and your bouts of ill-temper.’
‘I don’t like leaving you. Not in the present circumstances,’ I cavilled, while not admitting to her accusation of bad behaviour.
She laughed, as well she might, knowing me quite as well as, if not better than, I knew myself.
‘I’m perfectly capable of dealing with any unpleasantness that might arise,’ she argued.
This was true. Adela treated everyone, however awkward, with an unfailing courtesy that disarmed them and made them ashamed of their boorishness. It was also true that as far as the children were concerned, she was better at controlling them than I was. Whereas I shouted and bribed, veering between heavy-handed tyranny and abject sycophancy, she spoke quietly, but firmly, and if she uttered a threat, it was not an idle one.
‘Besides,’ she added, ‘Margaret’ – Margaret Walker, my quondam mother-in-law and Adela’s cousin – ‘has promised to shut up her cottage in Redcliffe and stay with us while you’re away.’
No doubt, I thought sulkily, the whole thing had been arranged between them, behind my back and before I was even aware of what I wanted myself. My wife saw the look on my face and laughed again. She put her arms around my neck, pressing close to me with an affection that I couldn’t, and wasn’t meant, to mistake.
‘You can have until the beginning of March,’ she told me. ‘I shall expect you home well before Saint Patrick’s Day. And I mean that, Roger. I don’t want you turning up three weeks later, hoping that I’ll accept some lame excuse for your tardiness, because I shan’t.’
‘What would you do?’ I grinned, returning her embrace with lascivious interest.
But just at that moment, our two elder children burst in and, in spite of having the hall, the kitchen and their two bed-chambers as alternative playgrounds, announced that the parlour was the one place in the house where they intended to be for the rest of the morning.
Nothing had changed.
Three days later, I was on the road, heading north towards Gloucester, a full pack strapped to my back, a good thick cudgel (my ‘Plymouth Cloak’) grasped in my right hand and a small, nondescript dog trundling happily at my heels. (I had been forced to take Hercules with me because Margaret Walker had recently acquired an equally small, equally aggressive, black and white dog who had been abandoned by his owner, and whose presence in his new house deeply offended Hercules.) And now, in this last week of February, the pair of us were on the road home, in excellent time to reach Bristol well before the Feast of Saint Patrick on the 17th of March.
On my northward journey, I had taken my time getting to Gloucester by visiting even the smallest, out-of-the-way hamlets, tucked snug as mice in their nests beneath the rising folds of the Cotswold hills. From Gloucester, where I did good business and made a pilgrimage to the tomb of the murdered Edward II, I struck south-east, through the little slate-roofed villages and prosperous sheep farms, to the market town of Cirencester, the ancient Corinium Dobunnorum of the Romans, where, yet again, I had no difficulty in selling my wares. By now, February was well advanced and it was time to turn my footsteps south-westward if I was to be home by the middle of March.
I had chosen, conveniently, to forget Adela’s instruction of ‘well
Saint Patrick’s Day’, but an unexpected twinge of conscience led me to attempt a short cut, leaving the well-worn track between Cirencester and Tetbury and taking to a path recommended by a local forester. As this led through a densely wooded area, I should have known better, but the man’s eager assurances that, this way, I should reach Tetbury before I knew where I was proved irresistible. Unfortunately, it also proved prophetic in the sense that, before very long, I
know where I was, and was totally lost. To make matters worse, it had begun to rain, cold, slanting spears that stung my face and made Hercules whimper with indignation and stare up at me accusingly as he trotted by my side.
‘All right,’ I muttered as he yelped pathetically, ‘I know I’m a fool. You’re hungry, I’m hungry. We’re both wet, chilled to the marrow and dog-tired – if you’ll pardon the expression – but there’s nothing I can do about it. We can only keep on along this path and hope that it leads us somewhere … Christ Jesus! What was that?’