Read Constant Lovers Online

Authors: Chris Nickson

Tags: #General Fiction

Constant Lovers (31 page)

The storm came early in the afternoon; thunder roiled briefly overhead, rain pelted for a few minutes, turning the dirt to clinging mud, then it passed on, leaving the air fresher and cooler again.

He watched it all through the window, saw people dashing into houses and shops, heard two girls scream at the loudness of the thunderclap. Once it had all gone he walked outside, drawing in deep breaths. Tomorrow the Godlove business finished. It had taken too long. He should have discovered the truth more quickly, but who could have imagined parents doing such a thing?

Yet he knew there was more to it than that. It had taken place on unfamiliar ground, outside the city he knew so well, among people with wealth and titles. The merchants in Leeds didn't worry him, no matter how rich they might be. They were people he saw every day, ordinary because they were so familiar. But Samuel Godlove, with his countless acres, or Gibton, the man who would have gleefully pawned his soul if it brought a good price; these were people he could never understand. They lived in a manner far beyond his ken. He'd fumbled in the dark all through the business.

In the end he decided to go alone.

‘Don't, boss,' Sedgwick said. ‘What if he wants to kill you out there?'

‘Then he'll have a fight on his hands. Come on, John, you've seen the man. Do you really think he'd be a danger?'

‘You don't know the place,' the deputy objected.

‘I'm not discussing it,' Nottingham told him flatly. ‘Everything will be fine.' He pulled the pistol from his pocket and showed the knife in its sheath on his belt. He left, amused at the old woman the deputy was becoming.

The horse was waiting at the stable. Gentle as it was, he hoped he wouldn't need to mount it again for a long time. He rode out past Sheepscar, taking the path to Harehills before finally turning on to a cart track along the valley where a sign indicated the well.

It was only a short distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile, before he saw the stone building standing back in the woods, a small area in front of it roughly cleared.

A horse was tethered there and he rubbed its flanks. The flesh was already cool; whoever it was had arrived some time before. He glanced at the well, just a small square carved out of the woods around a spring. The stone wall surrounding it was taller than a man, offering privacy for bathing. A wooden door stood ajar, leading into a tiny building at the side.

Cautiously, he came close, then drew the pistol and used it to push at the wood. It swung open slowly with a loud squeak. Nottingham waited, listening closely, but the only sounds he could hear came from the trees, the soft rustling of leaves and the cries of birds.

As quietly as possible, he walked in. There was a single high window, leaving just a faint light, the corners full of deep shadows. He stood still, letting his eyes adjust, gradually making out the shapes of benches and pegs hammered into the wall to hold clothes. One set hung there, peacock proud, a pair of polished boots neatly below them on the floor.

There was another door, closed tight. He lifted the latch as quietly as possible, barely daring to breathe, careful to stay out of sight as he pulled the handle back.

Nothing. He strode out into the bright shock of morning light. Flagstones formed a walkway, and rough steps led down to the small, square pool where Gibton lay naked, face down. His arms were splayed, his body a pale, ugly colour.

Nottingham squatted and reached out to touch the dead wet flesh, his fingertips rocking the corpse in the water, small ripples sparkling in the sun.

The Constable returned to the changing room and riffled through the pockets of the man's clothes. Gibton was certain to have left a letter; the man couldn't kill himself and not mark it in some way.

He found it in the inside pocket of the jacket, a roughly folded sheaf of papers. He took it outside, into the woods, found a stump a few yards from the horses, and sat to read.

By now you will have seen my body and have your proof that I am dead. If you go to my house you will see that my wife is also dead. I gave her poison last night after the servants had gone to their beds.

I shall explain what happened. It is true that Sarah arrived with her maid, as she did on occasion. She was going to leave Leeds with that man she loved. She was carrying his child. She enjoyed every word she told us.

It is also quite true that my wife had been ill, the worst I had seen her, with her ranting and raving. By the time Sarah arrived she had begun to recover. I was tending her, and had taken the knife and cut the bindings I had used to tie her to the bed.

The words put my wife in a red rage once more, not to be contained. If she left, Godlove would want all the money he had given us, and we would be paupers again. Had the girl thought of that? As Sarah walked away, she stabbed her.

With her dead, I needed to kill the maid. Early the next morning I put their bodies in the cart. I found a quiet spot for Anne, for no one would care if she was ever seen again.

For Sarah, though, I had to think. Kirkstall Abbey would be close enough to her home to bring questions. But I rushed the business and botched it. If I had taken the knife you would never have known with certainty.

The only death I regret is that of my wife. She was a good woman, faithful to me and to my name. But perhaps even that is a blessing, for she was growing worse and we had been told there was no cure. In all things, maybe, there is some good to be found.

He folded the sheets and forced them into his pocket. Who was the more insane, he wondered with a deep sigh, Gibton or his wife? Neither of them had cared for Sarah's happiness, for her joy in life. And when she'd tried to take it, to be with the man she loved, they'd killed her to hold on to their comfort.

With more cunning they'd never have been discovered. But now they were dead, like Sarah, like Will, and awaiting the judgement. Only Godlove was left, his own life like purgatory now.

He sat for long silent minutes in the wood, feeling inexplicably sad. Then he took a deep breath and climbed back on the horse. In the village he could tell them about the body at the well.

Twenty-Five

Nottingham stood by the grave as the vicar himself recited the service for the dead. Worthy had spent enough to ensure the best, no mere curate to preside over the burial, and a lengthy eulogy that transformed him into an outstanding citizen. His corpse lay in the best of coffins with its wood buffed to a high gloss.

There was a sharp bite to the autumn wind in the churchyard. Already the leaves were beginning to tumble, swirling and spiralling across the grass and crunching underfoot.

The voice droned on, intoning the prayers for the dead.

‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not up thy merciful eyes to our prayers: but spare us Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee.'

The Constable pulled the collar of his coat close about himself. He was almost the only mourner, exactly as the pimp had predicted. His men had abandoned him in the end, his friends on the Corporation had forsaken him. The only one left, so he'd heard, had been the old woman from the parlour, who'd tended him like a baby in his last days. She stood a few yards away, a bent crone covered head to toe in deep black.

Worthy had died two days before, gently, in his sleep. The old woman had discovered him early Sunday morning, her banshee wailing dragging the neighbours from their rest.

The Constable had heard of the death as he left the morning service. Lister had been waiting outside the Parish Church, his face eager with the news and the chance of seeing Emily for a few brief minutes. Nottingham had sent him to find Sedgwick, and the three men had spent the afternoon at the jail, making their plans.

The procurer had been correct. Once he'd gone the fighting would begin in earnest and they needed to be ready. Everyone who thought himself a hard man would be on the streets, threatening the whores and trying to become king. They had to make sure all the pretenders were knocked down.

He hadn't spoken to Worthy since the man had told him he was dying. There seemed to be nothing more to say, no farewells to be made; they'd come quite naturally to the end of words.

The vicar finished his litany, closed his prayer book and lowered his head. Nottingham bent to pick up some of the dirt piled by the grave. He raised his hand and spread his fingers, letting the dust and clumps fall loudly on to the wood six feet below.

‘. . . through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be like to his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.'

A time had ended.

He turned away and walked across the churchyard to the spot he knew so well, where his older daughter, Rose, had lain since February. He stood and looked down at the sinking mound of grass. Another few months, once another winter had passed, and they'd finally be able to put up the headstone for her.

In the beginning, after she'd died, he'd come here often to feel close to her, to talk to her and say all the things he felt he couldn't tell anyone else. Now, although he still loved her so much, he no longer came regularly. He'd allowed her memory to grow fainter, relinquishing her rather than trying desperately to hold on to her.

He sighed, knelt, and plucked away a few weeds. He was sick of death, of the bodies he'd seen, the people he'd had to tell, the faces he'd known who were no longer there. Too many of them over the years.

Slowly he pushed himself upright, his knees tight and aching as he rose. He was growing older himself, and he hoped that this winter wouldn't be as bad as the last one. Bye, love, he said softly to Rose and made his way to the lych gate where Sedgwick was waiting.

‘He's finally in the ground then?'

The Constable nodded.

‘He is. And it's where we'll all be in the end, John. Think on.'

Afterword

For many centuries arranged marriages were commonplace. They united powerful families, brought together wealth and land. At many social levels they were the norm. If a marriage also brought love, that was good fortune, but it was certainly never a consideration.

The dowry, also known as the bride portion, was also common. It was what the bride brought to the marriage, and its amount would vary with the status of the couple. Although a bride price – what a man might pay to the bride's family for his new wife – is long established in the East, where it's seen to recompense them for her services and value, it has no real mention in the West.

That doesn't mean it never happened, especially in the lower echelons of nobility, and baron is the lowest. The respectability of society – of aristocracy – was a great draw to those who had money and no title, and wealth attracted those who had title but little money. It was a match made, if not in heaven, then somewhere. It's worth remembering that all too often in this period women had next to nothing in the way of rights and were treated like chattel. This takes that premise and builds on it.

These days both Horsforth and Roundhay are suburbs of Leeds rather than the outlying villages they were in the 1730s. The ‘old Roman road' is Street Lane, any traces of Rome now myth, not fact. But the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey remain, more ancient and fragile now, yet still imbued with a very deep sense of spirit. To be there, sitting on the banks of the Aire on a summer's day is to feel a powerful connection to history.

Gipton Well (not Gibton), otherwise known as Gipton Spa, is still extant, hidden away at one end of Gledhow Valley Woods, not far from Roundhay Road. It was built in 1671 by Edward Waddington and for a time it was favoured by some of the great and good of Leeds. It's been fenced off since 2004, but the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods have been restoring it.

I rely on a number of books when writing about Leeds. Chief among them are:
The Illustrated History of Leeds
by Steven Burt and Kevin Brady (Breedon Books, 1994) which remains my most valuable resource;
Leeds: The Story of a City
by David Thornton (Fort, 2002);
The Municipal History of Leeds
by James Wardell (Longman Brown & Co., 1846);
Gentleman Merchants
by R.G. Wilson (Manchester University Press, 1971) and
1700
by Maureen Waller (Sceptre, 2000). Additionally, there was wonderful information to be gleaned from
The Merchants' Golden Age: Leeds 1700–1790
by Steven Burt and Kevin Brady (self published, 1987),
Old Leeds Inside Out
, compiled by Steven Burt (no publisher listed) and the
1989 Centenary Edition Miscellany of Publications of the Thoresby Society, Leeds in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
(Thoresby Society). And nothing would be complete without the mighty
Ducatis Leodensis
by Ralph Thoresby himself, the first historian of Leeds and its surrounding areas.

I'm grateful to many people who've contributed in different ways to make this a much better book than it would have been if I'd worked alone. There's Kate Lyall Grant at Severn House/Crème de la Crime, my agent Tina Betts, and Lynne Patrick (to whom I still owe a huge debt).

Linda Hornberg's maps always bring the book more alive, and Thom Atkinson's critiques are invaluable; a truly brilliant writer himself, if these novels shine, much of the credit lies with him.

And this book wouldn't have happened without Penny or August (who slept through most of it), or thoughts of Graham.

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