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Authors: Sandra Heath

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Breaking the Rules

BOOK: Breaking the Rules
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BREAKING THE RULES

 

Sandra Heath

 

In and out the dusky bluebells,

In and out the dusky bluebells,

In and out the dusky bluebells,

I am your master.

 

Tipper-ipper-apper

on your shoulder,

Tipper-ipper-apper

on your shoulder,

Tipper-ipper-apper

on your shoulder,

I am your master.

 

‘In and out the dusky bluebells’

is a pre-Christian singing ring game played

all over England and Wales. Said to be magical,

its words can be construed as rather sinister.

Its origins lie in Druid customs ....

 

 

Chapter 1

 

“Miss Elcester, I fear poor, dear Reverend Arrowsmith will never recover from the shock,” declared his high-strung wife as she languished wanly upon a mound of pillows.

Mrs. Arrowsmith had recently been brought to bed of twin boys, who had been promptly banished to the nursery at the other side of the rambling vicarage in order to spare their mother’s delicate nerves. Except that nerves had very little to do with it, for she was always more concerned about herself than anything else. She had made an inordinate fuss from the moment her babies were expected; indeed, she had raised the trials of prospective motherhood to an art, wallowing in the anxious attentions of her sorely tried husband. Even now her bedroom curtains were almost fully drawn to prevent the late-April sunshine from spoiling her treasured pallor, and a log fire roared and crackled in the hearth, rendering the room almost suffocatingly hot for anyone else except herself, for
she
was always cold, no matter what. It was as if there was something missing from her life, an omission that made her dissatisfied and self-absorbed. Ursula Elcester’s father declared her to be a woman in search of something she would never find. Perhaps he was right.

“Whatever shall I do?” the wilting invalid continued. “How can I possibly offer him comfort when he has suffered such a calamity?” Her lips quivered expertly, and she dabbed a handkerchief to eyes that were devoid of real tears.

Ursula, her rather unwilling visitor, was a young lady who was occasionally unable to help deliberately misunderstanding, especially with such an impossible woman. “Calamity? Oh, surely he does not see the babies in that light?”

“Babies?” Mrs. Arrowsmith looked blankly at her for a moment. “Miss El
sess
ter, I wasn’t referring to my darling cherubs.”

Ursula gritted her teeth at the mispronunciation of her surname. Why did the awful creature still insist on saying “El
sess
ter,” even though she and her husband had been in Elcester village for four years now? It was time the silly creature accepted that no matter how the name was
spelt,
it was
pronounced
Elster! Ursula was the only child of Mr. Thomas Elcester, the renowned clothier and antiquarian, who owned the village and a large portion of the surrounding area, as well as several mills along the River Frome in the nearby Stroud valley, and she was very proud indeed of her ancient name.

Mrs. Arrowsmith continued. “I was referring to the theft of the chalice from the church. ‘

“Ah, yes, the chalice.” Ursula’s face was the very picture of righteous sympathy, although to be sure she was hard put not to smile, for the lidded goblet in question wasn’t what most people thought it to be—an Anglo-Saxon communion cup—but an earlier, very unholy thing indeed. A minute examination of its elaborate frieze revealed pagan goings-on that had nothing whatsoever to do with Christian martyrdom! How on earth it ever came to be in the church was a mystery. The staid Bishop of Gloucester would not approve at all, and Mrs. Arrowsmith herself would no doubt have a fit of the vapors to end all fits of the vapors.

That lady dabbed her eyes again. “This is 1817, and I cannot believe there is anyone so base as to steal from an altar. Why, I said to dear Lord Carmartin before he left for London, that the world is now a wicked, wicked place.”

Ursula could just imagine his lordship’s response, for he was not a man to suffer fools gladly, and Mrs. Arrowsmith was definitely a fool. Lord Carmartin’s country seat, Carmartin Park, stood on an outlier of the Cotswold escarpment in the wide vale of the River Severn, five miles away from the village, which was itself high on the escarpment. He was not an easy man, nor even a pleasant one, and was certainly not someone about whom Ursula wished to think. Not now, not ever really.

Mrs. Arrowsmith was still speaking. “And as if the theft of the chalice was not bad enough, this morning I have learned that the yew tree has had
another
piece of bark removed.”

“Another?” Ursula knew the two-thousand-year-old tree had been tampered with at least twice already, once prior to her father’s recent financial difficulty and then again just before Jem Cartwright suddenly sold up the village inn and departed, no one knew where. On both occasions a six-inch square of bark had been carefully cut away.

“Oh, yes. There are now
three
rectangles spoiling the trunk.” Mrs. Arrowsmith gestured toward the window. “See for yourself, Miss El
sess
ter.”

Ursula went to hold the curtain aside and look through the fresh young leaves of the walnut tree that grew against the sunny vicarage wall. She wore a riding habit that was the same shade of lilac as her eyes; indeed, lilac was her favorite color, and on her head there was a little black beaver hat with a net veil that was turned up to reveal her face. She was pale and slender, with a mane of silver-blonde curls that required the firm grip of numerous pins. At the moment it was gathered into the nape of her neck by a bow of wide lilac ribbon that was prettily embroidered with white dots. She did not often succumb to fripperies of any kind, but when last in Cheltenham had not been able to resist purchasing several yards such a pretty ribbon.

The vicarage drive curved away between lawns to wrought-iron gates set in a Cotswold stone wall. Immediately to the left of the grounds stood the ancient church with its squat tower and crowded country graveyard, and overhanging the lych-gate was the venerable yew tree. The three square scars on the trunk were clearly visible. Who on earth would do such a thing? And why?

Mrs. Arrowsmith echoed her thoughts. “It makes one wonder what manner of being is walking about in the village. I mean, what possible reason could anyone have for carving three pieces of bark from a tree? And not even at the same time, but on three separate occasions?”

Ursula was about to turn back into the room when a movement in the walnut tree caught her eye. It was a copper-colored squirrel, pert, quick, and daring enough to come quite close to the glass, flicking its long bushy tail and gazing at her with bright, intelligent eyes.

Mrs. Arrowsmith was complaining again. “Oh, I declare that all this will prove the very end of me. How am I supposed to worry about chalices and yew trees when I am so fragile?”

Ursula returned to the bedside. “I’m sure you will benefit from the asparagus I have brought from the manor stovehouse. It is a capital remedy for ragged nerves.” The asparagus had been received with gushing superlatives that still rang in her ears. There was
never
such asparagus in all the world, so tender, so straight, so perfect, so beautifully cut, so cleverly bundled, so immaculately matched, so everything-under-the-sun! To be sure, Ursula thought wryly, the Almighty had only created asparagus to please the vicar of Elcester’s wife.

Mrs. Arrowsmith’s face brightened. “A capital remedy? Is it really?”

“Indeed so,” Ursula replied untruthfully, for she had no idea whether it was or not, but Mrs. Arrowsmith was the sort of person one reassured by saying such things.

“Then I daresay I will eat it this very day,” the vicar’s wife declared.

The clock on the mantel chimed midday, and almost immediately the nearby church bell boomed out as well. Ursula was relieved. “I must go now, Mrs. Arrowsmith, but I will come again soon.”

“You do not mean to come to my churching tomorrow? It is to be very early, I know, but nevertheless ... ” The question was put in a reproachful tone.

“Tomorrow? Why, yes, of course. I had not realized ... ”

“I do hope dear Mr. El
sess
ter will come too?”

“I’m sure he will.”

Mrs. Arrowsmith’s face was wreathed in smiles again. “That would be
most
agreeable, Miss El
sess
ter. Thank you again for the wonderful, wonderful asparagus.”

Ursula forced another smile, and made her exit. She had hoped to be able to ‘forget’ the churching, but that wouldn’t do now.

Pausing beneath the vicarage porch to lower the veil of her riding hat, she turned to glance up at the walnut tree, but the squirrel had gone. She took a deep breath of the sweet spring air, and closed her eyes for a moment. Most people regarded her as quite a beauty, which together with her expectations should have long since seen her suitably married off, but she had always been far too contented with her quiet country life to want to come out in London; indeed, she stubbornly refused to consider the Season. Cheltenham was the only fashionable place she had ever cared to visit, even Bath she considered to be too much of a marriage mart.

But apart from this resistance on her part, the plain fact was that she was also an incurably overeducated bookworm. Reading was her greatest delight, and she could speak French and German, as well as the fluent Welsh she had learned from her dear late mother. Her great passion was Celtic myths, which she had begun to painstakingly translate into English from ancient manuscripts that had come to her from her mother’s family. It was her dearest hope that one day the resulting volume might be published. Such a studious turn of character made her virtually unmarriageable, except under the peculiar circumstances that now prevailed, for the dread prospect had arisen of an arranged match that she loathed to even think about.

Ursula sighed and began to walk down the drive toward the gates, for she had left her new white mare tethered by the churchyard wall. If she could make time stand still right now, she most certainly would! Why dwell on horrid things like marriage contracts when she was about to enjoy a delightful ride home through the woods? It was the twenty-seventh day of April, 1817, and for the moment at least all was well with her world. The weather was glorious, the hedgerows were white with hawthorn, the orchards pink with blossom, and gardens were filled with lilac, forget-me-nots, wallflowers, and jonquils. Skylarks sang ecstatically against the bright blue Gloucestershire sky, and the sound of lambs drifted from the stonewalled fields surrounding the village that took its name from her family.

Elcester was a picturesque community of gabled stone houses and cottages that from medieval times had owed its existence to wool and weaving. It nestled around its church in a dip just behind the western edge of the Cotswold escarpment, at a spot where four roads of varying importance met, and where there was shelter from the southwest gales that roared up the vale of the River Severn from the Bristol Channel. It wasn’t a large village, possessing one general shop, an inn, a smithy, the church, and a tiny school set up with funds provided by Ursula’s widowed father. A mile away to the northwest, on the far side of a hidden valley through which no road passed, stood Elcester Manor, her beloved home.

The village had remained small because of its isolated position, but its roads were often very busy. There were many towns in the surrounding area—Stroud, Dursley, Tetbury, Nailsworth, Wotton-under-Edge, Thornbury, Berkeley, Gloucester, and Cheltenham, even Bristol— and Elcester was where the ways crossed. In a few days’ time the exciting May Day fair would take place, with all the traditional distractions of which the Arrowsmiths had made known their righteous disapproval.

Wagons, carts, flocks of sheep, stagecoaches, private drags, everything came this way, sometimes just making the dust fly, but these days often stopping at the inn, which had recently been renamed the Green Man. Not a popular choice of name, nor a particularly popular new innkeeper.

As she emerged through the vicarage gates, Ursula found Daniel Pedlar, the village blacksmith, soothing her mare, which had been in a very odd mood coming through the woods earlier. There had been Pedlars in Elcester for as long as anyone could remember, and they seemed to have always been the village smiths. Daniel’s forge was opposite the lych-gate, and he had seen how nervous and unsettled the horse was when Ursula arrived by the lych-gate. He was a widower, a burly man with a shock of gray hair, and leathery skin that was darkened by years of sweat and heat. His low-crowned hat was seldom set aside, no matter how hot he became, and his old leather apron was shiny and worn. His shirtsleeves were permanently rolled up to show his muscular arms, but his touch upon the mare was feather-light, for he was not only a strong man but a gentle, artistic one too. Smithery was his trade, but delicate wrought-ironwork was his hobby, and many a fine garden chair, armorial gate, and elaborate weathercock had come from his forge.

BOOK: Breaking the Rules
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