Read A Broom at the Masthead (The Drowned Books Book 1) Online
Authors: M J Logue
Broom at the Masthead
Drowned Books: 1
Copyright © 2016 Climbing Tree Books
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Four Ashes, Buckinghamshire, England
She looked up as he entered the room,
her eyes narrowing to see him in the gloom of a few meagre tapers. A paltry
display, for such a family, and on such a bitter midwinter night. It gave him
enough light to see her clearly, though, and he was astonished at the change in
her: but then, it had been ten years, and they had not been kind years, for
She had always
been for the King, during the late wars, and it must have gone hard with her to
have had a brother who was not only a most notorious rebel and subversive, but
who had narrowly escaped being executed for his political beliefs, with a pack
of fellow Dissenters and horse-thieves calling themselves the Levellers. And he
had not had the grace to slide into obscurity, after his grudging pardon, but
instead had gone on to serve quite conspicuously in the Army of General Monck
after the King was restored.
It must have
been bitter as wormwood for her, to know that he was still out there in the
world. That those sins of which she had spoken, at such length, with such
contempt, had gone unpunished, and that he was still unrepentant, and his
existence still as shameful and abhorrent to her.
withered her. Her hair was hidden by the same stiff starched cap, untouched by
fashion or flattery, but her eyebrows were as dark and uncompromising as ever.
Not an unattractive woman, for a widow in her late fifties. She was as tall and
slender as her brother, and her shoulders were straight. He found himself quite
admiring her, actually. Not as a woman, but as a fierce thing of beauty, like a
falcon or a well-made sword.
she said. And that was all she said.
He bowed, with
as much ostentation as he could, because he had been on the peripheries of
court these four years and more and he had learned the weapons of vicious
courtesy. "I am glad to see you well, Mistress Coventry. After so long
"As a dog
returneth to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. Should I say I am as
glad to see you? Well, I won't." She smiled, which was unexpected. "I
do not lie, sir. I am not in the least glad to see you. Prinked out in your
degenerate finery - 'For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they
allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness.' Do you seek to
impress me, you nasty, womanish
no," he said mildly, and she lowered her head and glowered at him.
your blasphemy. This is a godly house. What do you want?"
She had not
invited him to sit, or offered him hospitality, and he was glad of that,
actually. She still made him nervous, for all he had not set eyes on her in ten
years. And she had no power over him, and she never had, because for all her
malice she was no more than a woman, and a thin, bloodless, bitter one at that.
to assure myself of your continued good health," he said, and dropped his
eyes to hide that particular lie.
Well. I wonder why, since you never did before - when you were drinking and
whoring all over the county, keeping your low company?"
hereabouts that you are grown - odd, mistress. That you grow overly zealous,
even more than you were previous, and that none of your servants will stay
longer than a few weeks with you, for your harshness. That you can be cruel,
and whimsical, in your ways." He took a deep breath, and went on,
"That you are often alone, in this house, at night, for such staff as can
bear your intolerance will not stay under the same roof. Is that true?"
Her dark eyes,
ringed about with tender blue shadows, lifted to his face. "True? What
concern is it of yours, then?"
He was still on
his feet. Had not been asked to do otherwise, and so it was quite easy to go
and stand over her, and set his hands on her shoulders. Such slight, narrow
shoulders, for all their straightness. Her bodice, close to, was shabby: a
little shrunken at the seams, unevenly faded, as if it had been remade from
another garment, and covered by an old-fashioned linen collar that had a darn
at the fold. A fine darn, but a darn, nonetheless. "There is not the money
here to pay a servant's hire, is there, mistress?" he said gently.
"You have lost all, since the wars. Have you not?"
She almost rose
from her seat, an unlovely blush mottling her cheeks and her neck. "How
you, sir -"
And he put his
hands about her slight throat and snapped her neck, as simply as that. Like
snapping a coney's, when it was snared, and with as little emotion.
She was not
expecting it, and she did not struggle, after that initial convulsion; she only
hung between his two hands with her dark eyes blank and staring at him, and her
mouth slightly ajar.
He was not as
frightened as he thought he would be. She was dead, and it had been easy. He
did not feel anything, apart from a slight repulsion, as a sliver of saliva
drooled from her lolling mouth.
bones. So frail. Not like her brother, not at all like her brother, in the end.
For Thankful Russell was still alive, and Fly was, distinctly, dead.)
She would not be
missed, until it was too late. Of that he was very sure. He wished her eyes
would close, though, and that she might not keep
Well, he had done what he came to do, and now he knew. It would probably not be
so easy again. But he had done it, and perhaps – well. Perhaps he must needs
try again, then, to be sure, with someone who would be more of a challenge than
this bitter, unmourned woman -
She was limp,
and she had soiled herself, and he wrinkled his nose at that. Her head flopped
on her shoulder when he lifted her, and she was unwieldy, her feet dragging on
the bare boards as he laid her on the floor in front of the hearth.
He took one of
the smouldering logs from the fire and laid it underneath her skirts. Stood
back and admired his work. It was a meagre, thin, smoking fire, and he had to
kick it and poke it till it flared into sullen life, tightening his lips at the
smuts it left on his good stockings. Her plain woollen garments smouldered, but
did not flare, and he touched flame to the rest of her. Her loosened hair,
flaring like a banner across the boards where her cap had spilled. Her darned
old-fashioned rushes on the floor caught like tinder, and he backed away,
scrambling with a loss of dignity as flames began to lick at her skirts,
outlining her in a bright halo. And to trickle outwards, starting to crackle,
with the first wisps of greasy smoke as her flesh started to scorch.
And then the
first of the wall-hangings that rippled in the old house's draughts caught
light, and he turned and left the hall.
because why should he run? He felt nothing, except the satisfaction of a job
well-done - that, and a sense of relief, that it was done so quickly, and so
He could move
He sniffed surreptitiously at the stiff,
lustrous collar of his court suit.
faintly, of stale rosewater and tobacco and sea-coal fumes, with an acrid note
of sweat, and a slight overlay of wine. Under that was the strange, fugitive
scent of silk, of tar and the sea and the spices of the hold of an East
Indiaman - although that was possibly in his imagination, for he had never set
foot on a ship bound for anywhere more exotic than the Low Countries.
He'd been told,
in no uncertain terms, that he'd shirked long enough. That an officer of some
seniority, even a supply officer of no great military significance or birth -
General Monck had been very specific on that last, and Russell could still hear
his old commander's round rural Devonshire accent in his head at the memory of
it - it was his
to present himself at court and pay his respects to
His Majesty, on the glorious event of his restoration to the throne after
eleven years of misery under the Commonwealth.
And then Monck
had glowered, and narrowed his little bull's eyes, pouched in sagging red
flesh. "You'll do the pretty, Major Russell, for all ye were a damnable
With which Major
Thankful Russell could not argue, for with a name like Thankful, he could
scarcely deny his staunch Puritan upbringing, and having almost had himself
executed as a political subversive at Burford with the rest of the Leveller
ringleaders, he had to admire General Monck's perspicacity.
But. He had
thought that after twenty years of keeping his head down, of being a
ferociously good supply officer of no great military significance or birth, of
waking and sleeping lists and requisitions and logistics - after a life of
ruthless and selfless service, he might not be forced to show his face at
court. Well. Monck had said it was a matter of respect. Russell was a
god-damned administrator, a jumped-up pen-pusher, who the hell did he think he
was, in his arrogance, to refuse to present his respects to His Majesty in
They forgot, you
see. They saw this neat, slightly austere, mouse-haired gentleman in his
forty-second year, tall and a little stiff in the shoulders as a result of
stooping over his requisitions these last twenty years. Slightly deaf in one
ear, and scarred in the face where a Royalist pike had ruined his youthful
beauty for ever in the early days of the civil wars. Short-haired, where
preposterously curled wigs were the fashion, and so they called him Old
Crophead, for his old Parliament leanings and his present lack of vanity. Not
given to excess of any nature, but a most prim and sober and respectable senior
officer, the sight of whose marred face could be relied upon to damp the high
spirits of any sociable gathering.
They forgot that
twenty years ago he had been a firebrand, and a rebel. He looked cold and
implacable, but how else might a man look, who had taken the thrust of the
shattered butt of a pike through his cheek?
And so it had
been a matter of duty, and a direct order, that Russell should present himself
at court. Well, he had. He remembered little of it. He had, admittedly,
fortified himself with perhaps more wine than he ought to have: anything to
stop the shaking of his hands, his absolute bone-deep horror of being so
conspicuously displayed in a public place, of being
. More than
that, though, it had just been
. Nothing happened. Lots of nothing
happened. Just a lot of people talking a lot of nothing in a big,
over-furnished room, that smelt of stale bodies and tallow and too much scent.
He didn’t remember being presented to the King, though he supposed he must
have, or Monck would have made him go back. Smiling politely at everyone,
because he didn’t have a clue who was sleeping with whom, male or female, and
it did not do to cut the reigning favourite, or the court wit. Being called
which he did not understand, but which had been kindly explained to him some
time later by a friend who had read such old-fashioned tragedies that it
referred to a most notorious court malcontent and bird of ill omen, in an old
Being told, by a
gaggle of cackling, bewigged striplings, that if one gilded a turd, it remained
nonetheless a turd. And suggesting to their braying whelp of a ringleader, a
drawling jackanapes who gave himself out as the Earl of Rochester, that if he
passed such remarks in Russell's hearing again, Russell would take Rochester's
ungodly pet ape and insert it where the Lord's grace did not shine.
known poets, in his youth. The men he had known would have hesitated to scrawl
such lewd doggerel as Rochester wrote, on the wall of a troop latrine. He was
not impressed by a seventeen-year-old libertine. And he meant it about the
he'd stayed close to the wall, trembling, with the small of his back against
the moulded plaster, taking some comfort from that cool strength. Holding to
his duty, because that was what he did, what he had done since he was seventeen
and first a young officer, and he had no idea how to do else. Twenty-five years
of duty above all became a sort of habit. Feeling like an impostor, in his
charcoal-grey lutestring silk, with a jacket that was so short and tight it
barely covered his backside, and great billowing shirt-sleeves hanging from
under the shrunken sleeves. Festooned with ribbon, like a damnable maypole,
with a cravat that trailed in his supper if he was not cautious how he sat.
Ribbons and lace and high-heeled shoes, which made him mince like a girl, and
he could not and would not grow one of those ashy smears of moustache, even if
his scarred face would allow it.
He had been a
little drunk, and a lot nervous, and his teeth had been chattering on the rim
of his delicate Venetian glass goblet even before he'd seen a face he knew,
however vaguely: the chubby, deceptively amiable countenance of Charles
Fairmantle, a distant neighbour from back on his home Buckinghamshire chalk
hills. Member of Parliament now, he thought he'd heard. Had gone to school with
Russell, and done well for himself after the wars, they said. Couldn't remember
what the man had done - married well? Invested? Something, and he did not care,
overly much. Fairmantle was a toady and a lecher, and a pathetic ageing
hanger-on to the peripheries of Rochester's lewd young cohort. The touch of his
chubby hand made a sweat of repulsion break out on Russell's top lip, as if a
warm slug had crawled over his skin. But Fairmantle was familiar, for all that,
and even his seedy familiarity was a small comfort in this glittering company,
like a pair of worn but stinking boots.
idle pleasantries - or at the least, Fairmantle made idle pleasantry and Russell
stared blankly at him for the most part. And then,
condolences, Major. A bad business. A bad business, indeed. You must be
Indeed," Russell said blankly. "Which condolences?"
The pudgy hand
on his sleeve, patting, solicitous, leaving a faint, damp print on the
"But I am
so sorry, sir. I had assumed you knew. Your sister, major. God rest her, she -
Four Ashes was burned, not three months ago, and poor Mistress Coventry with
it." Fairmantle shook his head. "I am sorry. I had not meant - I had
not known - sir, you turn positively pale -"
And Russell, who
had hated his sister, and not set eyes on her in the better part of ten years,
had bitten clean through the rim of his goblet in his shock nonetheless.
He thought that
had been the moment when he had decided to come back to Buckinghamshire for
good and all, though it had taken him a few months of despair and
soul-searching to work out how he might rebuild the house at Four Ashes.
And then a
further few months of despair and soul-searching when he realised that there
was only one woman he'd have entertained as mistress there, and that she was as
utterly, irrevocably not for him as the moon for the moth.
ought to have mentioned that uncertainty to Thomazine Babbitt, for she was
under no such doubts at all, as it turned out. There had only ever been one man
for Thomazine, from when she'd been knee-high to him, and the Lord be praised,
it turned out it had always been Russell. It seemed she'd considered him her
especial property since she was three years old, and he twenty, and her
father's lieutenant in the old New Model Army. It might have saved him some
considerable distress of mind if she'd thought to tell him earlier, though, he
smoothed the charcoal silk again, absently.
He'd thought to
do her honour on their wedding day, and wear his finest.
She was marrying
a plain gentleman, not a courtier. He'd given all that up, along with his
commission, just under a year ago. He was no man's but his own.
- And hers, of
course. Always hers.
He took a deep
breath, and pulled on the plain, decent, pewter-grey wool waistcoat with the
plain silver buttons, and the plain, old-fashioned, straight-fitting coat that
went with it.
the lass will recognise you," he told himself, smiling wanly at his
reflection in the mirror.
Ruffled a hand
through his hair - grown to his shoulders, now, and no longer so
indeterminately mouse as it had been when he'd worn it close-cropped, but
streaked fair and dark as a field of wheat when the wind blows through it. She
liked it so, worn long, and straight.
He was scarred,
and worn, and weary, and his head hurt when the wind was in the north.
All that was
loved him. And further than that, he did not care.
He turned his head to look at her as she
walked in under the dripping arch of leaves and everything Thomazine's mother
had been fiercely telling her about comporting herself with dignity - about
walking slowly, not loping like a dismounted cavalry trooper, she got that from
her father - about behaving with a becoming shyness and grace, on her wedding
day - she forgot most of it, in the sheer joy of seeing her own dear Russell
standing at the altar looking like himself, and not some courtly fashion-plate.
Which she hadn't
thought he would, not really, but her fashionable sister, married these twelve
months and more, had been most insistent that he ought to at least make some
effort to look like a man of some import and not like a ragged provincial
sheep-farmer. To which Russell's uncharacteristically tart retort had been that
a provincial sheep-farmer, and intended to stay one since his
retirement from the Army, and that if Thomazine wanted to marry a periwigged
ninny like his future brother-in-law he might consider their engagement at an
She didn’t, and
they hadn't, and after some negotiation as to whether the modish Joyeux might
grace the countrified parish church that had been good enough for her
christening, with her shining countenance, a degree of compromise had been
under the weeping trees, with her mother’s hand under her elbow, and felt the
chill wind lift her loose hair. Loose for the last time as a maiden, and she
was quite looking forward to not being one. Most of
confined at the nape of his neck in a neat black silk ribbon bow, now that he
had seen sense and grown it long enough to tie back. It looked darker, in the
amber candlelight that lit the inside of the church on a wintry November day,
but the wisps that had worked loose to frame his dear, half-handsome face were
as bright and barley-fair as the first day she'd set eyes on him.
This was the
crowning day of her womanhood, her bridal day. Oddly, she wasn't frightened,
not at all, not even when every eye in the church bent on her as she walked in
through the door into the mousy darkness. She heard the little catch of a
collective intake of breath. She hadn’t turned out in borrowed plumes, either.
In point of fact, both she and her mother had taken one look at the weeping
grey skies and decided that a plain, but decent, birch-green skirt and bodice
in a good warm wool were much more sensible than silks.
was, though, poor sweet. Even though that kind
candlelight gave his pallor a slightly healthier colour than perhaps it
merited, he was white to the lips, and although he was facing in her direction,
she had the rather unsettling impression that he was beyond seeing her, or
indeed anything at all.
lad," her father said grimly down her ear, "that lad of yours is
about to keel over, Zee. Go and poke him, or summat."
And all those
well-meant instructions about dignity and deportment, all went out of her head,
and she went laughing to his side so hastily that the last candle in the aisle
guttered and went out in a wisp of acrid smoke in the draught of her passing.
she hissed, and he shook himself, and a little life came back into his eyes, a
very little sparkle.
- wonderingly, as if he had not truly thought she'd come, the silly man.