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Authors: Peter Sirr

Black Wreath

BOOK: Black Wreath
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For Enda and Freya

J
ames crouched in the darkest part of the cellar, behind two old wine barrels the house had forgotten. Everything in this corner of the cellar was discarded or forgotten: old bits of tackle, broken cups, a goblet, the rotting shafts from an old sedan chair. The cellar was damp and smelly, the smell not just of old things, but of evil, of rats and kidnappers and old blood. The smell of ghosts with ragged hair and claws for hands.

James was afraid. He was afraid of the evil-smelling cellar and its ghosts. On the shelf above his head he spotted the largest spider he had ever seen scuttling towards him. He wanted to shout out, but he couldn’t say a word. For if he was afraid of everything here in this horrible place, he was even more afraid of his father, whose heavy footsteps he could hear clumping around the house. Lord Dunmain was on the rampage again. He had been drinking and playing cards with his friends and
as always happened as the drinking and the card playing went on, Lord Dunmain became louder and angrier. Eventually he would send all the card players out of the house with a curse, and on particularly bad days he would shout at Smeadie to bring his son to him. The elderly servant would shuffle around the house calling the boy’s name in his squeaky voice, and if James wasn’t quick enough he would find himself standing meekly in front of the red-faced Lord Dunmain as he spat and spluttered and looked at his son as if he were a rat or an insect he couldn’t wait to crush with his heavy boots.

‘Where the devil were you, boy?’ his father would roar. ‘You will answer to me as long as you are in this house. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Father,’ James would answer, his voice small.

‘Speak up, can’t you? How can I hear that miserable snivelling?’ And on it would go, the name-calling, and sometimes a kick or a blow to accompany it.

Today would be worse; he could tell from the weight of the boots on the floor above. His anger always made Lord Dunmain heavier, as if a dark creature had crept inside him and weighed him down.

James stayed where he was and didn’t make a sound. He could hear the old servant shuffling about upstairs, but he would never find him here. Suddenly his heart froze – he heard his father’s feet on the stone steps and then the sound of the door being kicked open as his father came crashing into the cellar. Lord Dunmain straightened up in the room
and looked around him. James kept as still as he could, hardly daring to breathe. He mustn’t let his teeth chatter or any part of his body betray his presence there. He could hear his father’s loud breathing. Nothing Lord Dunmain did was quiet.

‘Claret!’ his father roared in the darkness, almost as if he expected the room to hand him out his wine.

Lord of the Dark, James thought; he thinks even the dark and its creatures should obey him.

Nothing answered Dunmain’s call, and he clattered around in the cellar until he found the wine he wanted. ‘Where are you, boy?’ he roared, his thunderous voice filling the small space.

Don’t move, James told himself. Don’t give him any sign that there is anything in here besides the cobwebs and the spiders, and the ghosts who don’t talk but watch and wait in the dark.

Dunmain reached out and fetched a bottle from the shelf in front of him. He looked as if he were about to leave when James heard a second, lighter set of steps descend the stairs to the cellar. Miss Deakin entered the room. James shrank back even further into his hiding place. He did not want to be seen by the woman who was now his father’s wife.

‘This will do you no good,’ her high, complaining voice was saying. ‘You need to act, not to drink.’

‘What would you have me do?’ his father said crankily.

‘We must have money!’ Miss Deakin said. James was supposed to call her Lady Dunmain, but to him she would always be Miss Deakin. ‘We can’t live like paupers. We have our positions to think of!’

His father grunted. ‘We’re hardly paupers yet,’ he answered. ‘And I have expectations. Lord Allen’s estate will pass to me in time …’

‘He may yet live fifty years!’ came the high voice again, impatient now.

‘But I can sell the leases on the land now. There are plenty of buyers. As soon as he dies the land will pass to whoever has the leases. They can make plenty of money out of it. I’ll get money now; they’ll get their reward later. Everybody will be happy. There’s only one problem.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘After my death the land would go back to James as my heir, and then the buyers would be stuck. Unless the heir had agreed to the sale.’

‘Well that’s the answer, isn’t it? Get the boy to sign an agreement.’

James felt his hands turn clammy. Something was going on here that was not good for him. The coldness of the woman’s voice told him as much.

‘That’s just it,’ James heard his father say. ‘He’s too young. The law wouldn’t recognise his agreement unless he was a legal adult.’

A brief silence followed that information. Although he did not understand the detail, James knew that his own future was being weighed in that silence. Then he heard Miss Deakin’s voice again, and something new in it, an eagerness. ‘There may be opportunity in that.’

‘How so?’

‘The boy was always a hindrance to our plans.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Things would be much simpler if he were not here, if he were not …’

James suddenly felt sick. He wanted to run upstairs to his room, but he forced himself to stay where he was.

‘If he were not what?’

‘Just that’ came her voice, lower this time, as if she could hardly believe what she was saying. ‘If he were not …’

‘Do you propose to do away with him then?’ His father’s voice was indignant.

‘Boys die all the time, they sicken, they … fall, they are attacked. The city is a dangerous place, gangs everywhere, Bloods and Bucks and Pinkinindies. Anything can happen to a boy.’

‘Not to my boy,’ Lord Dunmain determined. ‘Not to my own flesh and blood.’

‘That’s just the point, isn’t it? It’s the flesh and blood that causes the problem.’

‘There are other ways it may be resolved.’

‘What do you intend then?’

‘He may be concealed. He can live out of sight in the city.’

This idea did not seem to please Miss Deakin.

‘He may be found.’

‘He’s a boy, like any boy. He will be a boy in the city.’

Suddenly Miss Deakin was animated again. ‘Well, if that’s the way, I think I know someone who would be discreet.’

‘Who?’

‘My uncle, the dancing master. Mr Kavanagh. Of course
he’d need payment. He is not rich, but he is discreet.’

‘We will talk of it again.’ Lord Dunmain was suddenly weary. The storming fury had died down in him: there was no energy in his voice now. They left the cellar and climbed up the steps.

When he was sure they were gone, James climbed out of his hiding place and stood in the middle of the cellar. He rested his forehead against a wooden beam, as if the touch of the wood might help him make sense of what he had just heard. What did it all mean? They wanted money, and he was somehow in the way of their getting it. He remembered the cold excitement in Miss Deakin’s voice as she talked about the things that could happen to boys in the city. He had always disliked Miss Deakin, but in his dislike he had failed to understand the extent of her hatred for him. She wasn’t his mother, and therefore he was just an obstacle to her, somebody to be turned out onto the streets. He replayed the conversation over and over in his mind, the silences and hesitations of his father, the definiteness of Miss Deakin.

Maybe his father wasn’t as indifferent to him as it seemed. And yet he seemed quite prepared to let him go. It wouldn’t be the first time. When he was born he had been given to a nursemaid from the village. For years he had thought she was his mother, and not the thin lady in elegant clothes who drove up the driveway to the estate cottage to visit. They had widened that driveway especially for his mother’s carriage, but he didn’t know that.

Later, he had come back to live with the people he finally
came to realise were his real parents, and he saw his mother several times in the same week. That was before the trouble started and his father would come home roaring with drink and badness. A black night came when he had cursed his wife and ordered her out of the house, but James closed his mind to it now and tried to think only of the present, and what might happen next.

If he could get his father on his own, surely he would change his mind? He wasn’t so bad, was he? I’m his own flesh and blood, James said to himself. I just needed to talk to him when Miss Deakin isn’t there, and things will be alright again, won’t they?

People don’t harm their own children, after all – no one is that cruel. He remembered the time his father helped him onto the little pony and led him round the paddock. Lord Dunmain had gathered all the servants to watch, he was so proud. ‘Easy, James, and let him know who’s master. That’s my boy.’ James closed his eyes and let his mind drift back to the pony and the paddock and his father’s gentle, encouraging voice. Later, he would talk to his father. Later, everything would be alright again.

Right now, though, he needed to escape. He needed to get out of this house and breathe the air of the city. He needed to see Harry. He picked his way as gently as he could across the floor, careful not to tread on anything that might rattle or clatter. It took an age to get to the door, and then another age to climb the steps without making a sound. The cellar stairs led up to the back kitchen and from there a door led to the
stables at the back and out into the lane.

James moved quickly and quietly until he was well down the lane that ran along the back of the houses. The day was drizzly, and the city smelled of damp horses and horse dung. A rat the size of a small dog ran brazenly up the centre of the road as if he had every right to be there, and look out any who denied it. A recently dead cat lay in front of a doorway, its entrails hanging out. A woman stood in front of the door and swore at a young child, and if she saw or smelled the cat she gave no sign of it. She looked up at James as he passed and half-smiled, half-scowled at him.

‘Your lordship,’ she said elaborately, and James didn’t know whether she was being polite or mocking. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Everyone here knew who his father was, but they did not seem to admire him much. They admired Miss Deakin even less, especially since she was now calling herself Lady Dunmain.

That couldn’t be right, James thought. His mother was still alive, even if he didn’t know where she was. It was two years since he’d seen her. Shortly after she left, Lord Dunmain had taken him to Dublin in a coach. His father had claimed that his mother had died of an illness after she left, but James didn’t believe him; he had heard it said she was still alive, and was now in London. That meant his father must have two wives, and there must be two Lady Dunmains walking the earth.

James kicked a stone so hard it nearly hit the window of a house at the corner, and he ran off before anyone came to investigate. Then he walked quickly towards the river.

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