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Authors: Keith Roberts


BOOK: Pavane
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This aye night, this aye night, This aye night and all, Fire and fleet and candle-light, And Christ receive thy saule...

--The Lyke-Wake Dirge


On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin's bullets lodged in abdomen and chest. Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more... The rage of the English knew no bounds. A word, a whisper was enough; a half-wit youth, torn by the mob, calling on the blessing of the Pope... The English Catholics, bled white by fines, still mourning the Queen of Scots, still remembering the gory Rising of the North, were faced with fresh pogroms. Unwillingly, in self-defence, they took up arms against their countrymen as the flame lit by the Walsingham massacres ran across the land, mingling with the light of warning beacons the sullen glare of the auto-da-fe. The news spread; to Paris, to Rome, to the strange fastness of the Escorial, where Philip II still brooded on his Enterprise of England. The word of a land torn and divided against itself reached the great ships of the Armada, threshing up past the Lizard to link with Parma's army of invasion on the Flemish coast. For a day, while Medina-Sidonia paced the decks of the San Martin, the fate of half the world hung in balance. Then his decision was made; and one by one the galleons and carracks, the galleys and the lumbering urcas turned north towards the land. Towards Hastings and the ancient battleground of Santlache, where history had been made once centuries before. The turmoil that ensued saw Philip ensconced as ruler of England; in France the followers of Guise, heartened by the victories across the Channel, finally deposed the weakened House of Valois. The War of the Three Henrys ended with the Holy League triumphant, and the Church restored once more to her ancient power. To the victor, the spoils. With the authority of the Catholic Church assured, the rising nation of Great Britain deployed her forces in the service of the Popes, smashing the Protestants of the Netherlands, destroying the power of the German city-states in the long-drawn-out Lutheran Wars. The Newworlders of the North American continent remained under the rule of Spain; Cook planted in Australasia the cobalt flag of the Throne of Peter. In England herself across a land half ancient and half modern, split as in primitive times by barriers of language, class, and race, the castles of medievalism still glowered; mile on mile of unfelled woodland harboured creatures of another age. To some the years that passed were years of fulfilment, of the final flowering of God's Design; to others they were a new Dark Age, haunted by things dead and others best forgotten; bears and catamounts, dire wolves and Fairies. Over all, the long arm of the Popes reached out to punish and reward; the Church Militant remained supreme. But by the middle of the twentieth century widespread mutterings were making themselves heard. Rebellion was once more in the air...

First Measure


Durnovaria, England, 1968. The appointed morning came, and they buried Eli Strange. The coffin, black and purple drapes twitched aside, eased down into the grave; the white webbings slid through the hands of the bearers in nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti... The earth took back her own. And miles away Iron Margaret cried cold and wreathed with steam, drove her great sea-voice across the hills. At three in the afternoon the engine sheds were already gloomy with the coming night. Light, blue and vague, filtered through the long strips of the skylights, showing the roof ties stark like angular metal bones. Beneath, the locomotives waited brooding, hulks twice the height of a man, their canopies brushing the rafters. The light gleamed in dull spindle shapes, here from the strappings of a boiler, there from the starred boss of a flywheel. The massive road wheels stood in pools of shadow. Through the half-dark a man came walking. He moved steadily, whistling between his teeth, boot studs rasping on the worn brick floor. He wore the jeans and heavy reefer jacket of a haulier; the collar of the jacket was turned up against the cold. On his head was a woollen cap, once red, stained now with dirt and oil. The hair that showed beneath it was thickly black. A lamp swung in his hand, sending cusps of light flicking across the maroon livery of the engines. He stopped by the last locomotive in line and reached up to hang the lamp from her hornplate. He stood a moment gazing at the big shapes of the engines, chafing his hands unconsciously, sensing the faint ever-present stink of smoke and oil. Then he swung onto the footplate of the loco and opened the firebox doors. He crouched, working methodically. The rake scraped against the fire bars; his breath jetted from him, rising in wisps over his shoulder. He laid the fire carefully, wadding paper, adding a crisscrossing of sticks, shovelling coal from the tender with rhythmic swings of his arms. Not too much fire to begin with, not under a cold boiler. Sudden heat meant sudden expansion and that meant cracking, leaks round the fire tube joints, endless trouble. For all their power the locos had to be cosseted like children, coaxed and persuaded to give of their best. The haulier laid the shovel aside and reached into the firebox mouth to sprinkle paraffin from a can. Then a soaked rag, a match... The lucifer flared brightly, sputtering. The oil caught with a faint wkoomph. He closed the doors, opened the damper handles for draught. He straightened up, wiped his hands on cotton waste, then dropped from the footplate and began mechanically rubbing the brightwork of the engine. Over his head, long nameboards carried the style of the firm in swaggering, curlicued letters; Strange and Sons of Dorset, Hauliers. Lower, on the side of the great boiler, was the name of the engine herself. The Lady Margaret. The hulk of rag paused when it reached the brass plate; then it polished it slowly, with loving care. The Margaret hissed softly to herself, cracks of flame light showing round her ash pan. The shed foreman had filled her boiler and the belly and tender tanks that afternoon; her train was linked up across the yard, waiting by the warehouse loading bays. The haulier added more fuel to the fire, watched the pressure building slowly towards working head; lifted the heavy oak wheel scotches, stowed them in the steamer alongside the packaged water gauge glasses. The barrel of the loco was warming now, giving out a faint heat that radiated towards the cab. The driver looked above him broodingly at the skylights. Mid-December; and it seemed as always God was stinting the light itself so the days came and vanished like the blinking of a dim grey eye. The frost would come down hard as well, later on. It was freezing already; in the yard the puddles had crashed and tinkled under his boots, the skin of ice from the night before barely thinned. Bad weather for the hauliers, many of them had packed up already. This was the time for the wolves to leave their shelter, what wolves there were left. And the routiers... this was their season right enough, ideal for quick raids and swoopings, rich hauls from the last road trains of the winter. The man shrugged under his coat. This would be the last run to the coast for a month or so at least, unless that old goat Serjeantson across the way tried a quick dash with his vaunted Fowler triple compound. In that case the Margaret would go out again; because Strange and Sons made the last run to the coast. Always had, always would... Working head, a hundred and fifty pounds to the inch. The driver hooked the hand lamp over the push pole bracket on the front of the smokebox, climbed back to the footplate, checked gear for neutral, opened the cylinder cocks, inched the regulator across. The Lady Margaret woke up, pistons thumping, crossheads sliding in their guides; exhaust beating sudden thunder under the low roof. Steam whirled back and smoke, thick and cindery, catching at the throat. The driver grinned faintly and without humour. The starting drill was a part of him, burned on his mind. Gear check, cylinder cocks, regulator... He'd missed out just once, years back when he was a boy, opened up a four horse Roby traction with her cocks shut, let the condensed water in front of the piston knock the end out of the bore. His heart had broken with the cracking iron; but old Eli had still taken a studded belt, and whipped him till he thought he was going to die. He closed the cocks, moved the reversing lever to forward full, and opened the regulator again. Old Dickon the yard foreman had materialised in the gloom of the shed; he hauled back on the heavy doors as the Margaret, jetting steam, rumbled into the open air, swung across the yard to where her train was parked. Dickon, coatless despite the cold, snapped the linkage onto the Lady Margaret's drawbar, clicked the brake unions into place. Three waggons, and the water tender; a light enough haul this time. The foreman stood, hands on hips, in breeches and grubby, ruffed shirt, grizzled hair curling over his collar. 'Best let I come with 'ee, Master Jesse...' Jesse shook his head sombrely, jaw set. They'd been through this before. His father had never believed in overstaffing; he'd worked his few men hard for the wages he paid, and got his money's worth out of them. Though how long that would go on was anybody's guess with the Guild of Mechanics stiffening its attitude all the time. Eli had stayed on the road himself up until a few days before his death; Jesse had steered for him not much more than a week before, taking the Margaret round the hill villages topside of Bridport to pick up serge and worsted from the combers there; part of the load that was now outward bound for Poole. There'd been no sitting back in an office chair for old Strange, and his death had left the firm badly shorthanded; pointless taking on fresh drivers now, with the end of the season only days away. Jesse gripped Dickon's shoulder. 'We can't spare thee, Dick. Run the yard, see my mother's all right. That's what he'd have wanted.' He grimaced briefly. 'If I can't take Margaret out by now, 'tis time I learned.' He walked back along the train pulling at the lashings of the tarps. The tender and numbers one and two were shipshape, all fast. No need to check the trail load; he'd packed it himself the day before, taken hours over it. He checked it all the same; saw the tail-lights and number plate lamp were burning before taking the cargo manifest from Dickon. He climbed back to the footplate, working his hands into the heavy driver's mitts with their leather-padded palms. The foreman watched him stolidly. 'Take care for the routiers. Norman bastards...' Jesse grunted. 'Let 'em take care for themselves. See to things, Dickon. Expect me tomorrow.' 'God be with 'ee...' Jesse eased the regulator forward, raised an arm as the stocky figure fell behind. The Margaret and her train clattered under the arch of the yard gate and into the rutted streets of Durnovaria. Jesse had a lot to occupy his mind as he steered his load into the town; for the moment, the routiers were the least of his worries. Now, with the first keen grief just starting to lose its edge, he was beginning to realise how much they'd all miss Eli. The firm was a heavy weight to have hung round his neck without warning; and it could be there were awkward times ahead. With the Church openly backing the clamour of the Guilds for shorter hours and higher pay it looked as if the haulage companies were going to have to tighten their belts again, though God knew profit margins were thin enough already. And there were rumours of more restrictions on the road trains themselves; a maximum of six trailers it would be this time, and a water cart. Reason given had been the increasing congestion round the big towns. That, and the state of the roads; but what else could you expect, Jesse asked himself sourly, when half the tax levied in the country went to buy gold plate for its churches? Maybe though this was just the start of a new trade recession like the one engineered a couple of centuries back by Gisevius. The memory of that still rankled in the West at least. The economy of England was stable now, for the first time in years; stability meant wealth, gold reserves. And gold, stacked anywhere but in the half-legendary coffers of the Vatican, meant danger... Months back Eli, swearing blue fire, had set about getting round the new regulations. He'd had a dozen trailers modified to carry fifty gallons of water in a galvanised tank just abaft the drawbar. The tanks took up next to no space and left the rest of the bed for payload; but they'd be enough to satisfy the sheriff's dignity. Jesse could imagine the old devil cackling at his victory; only he hadn't lived to see it. His thoughts slid back to his father, as irrevocably as the coffin had slid into the earth. He remembered his last sight of him, the grey wax nose peeping above the drapes as the visitors, Eli's drivers among them, filed through the morning room of the old house. Death hadn't softened Eli Strange; it had ravaged the face but left it strong, like the side of a quarried hill. Queer how when you were driving you seemed to have more time to think. Even driving on your own when you had to watch the boiler gauge, steam head, fire.. . Jesse's hands felt the familiar thrilling in the wheel rim, the little stresses that on a long run would build and build till countering them brought burning aches to the shoulders and back. Only this was no long run; twenty, twenty-two miles, across to Wool then over the Great Heath to Poole. An easy trip for the Lady Margaret, with an easy load; thirty tons at the back of her, and flat ground most of the way. The loco had only two gears; Jesse had started off in high, and that was where he meant to stay. The Margaret's nominal horsepower was ten, but that was on the old rating; one horsepower to be deemed equal of ten circular inches of piston area. Pulling against the brake the Burrell would clock seventy, eighty horse; enough to shift a rolling load of a hundred and thirty tons, old Eli had pulled a train that heavy once for a wager. And won... Jesse checked the pressure gauge, eyes performing their work nearly automatically. Ten pounds under max. All right for a while; he could stoke on the move, he'd done it times enough before, but as yet there was no need. He reached the first crossroads, glanced right and left and wound at the wheel, looking behind him to see each waggon of the train turning sweetly at the same spot. Good; Eli would have liked that turn. The trail load would pull across the road crown he knew, but that wasn't his concern. His lamps were burning, and any drivers who couldn't see the bulk of Margaret and her load deserved the smashing they would get. Forty-odd tons, rolling and thundering; bad luck on any butterfly cars that got too close. Jesse had all the hauliers' ingrained contempt for internal combustion, though he'd followed the arguments for and against it keenly enough. Maybe one day petrol propulsion might amount to something and there was that other system, what did they call it, diesel... But the hand of the Church would have to be lifted first. The Bull of 1910, Petroleum Veto, had limited the capacity of IC engines to 150 cc's, and since then the hauliers had had no real competition. Petrol vehicles had been forced to fit gaudy sails to help tow themselves along; load hauling was a singularly bad joke. Mother of God, but it was cold! Jesse shrugged himself deeper into his jacket. The Lady Margaret carried no spectacle plate; a lot of other steamers had installed them now, even one or two in the Strange fleet, but Eli had sworn not the Margaret, not on the Margaret... She was a work of art, perfect in herself; as her makers had built her, so she would stay. Decking her out with gewgaws, the old man had been half sick at the thought. It would make her look like one of the railway engines Eli so despised. Jesse narrowed his eyes, forcing them to see against the searing bite of the wind. He glanced down at the tachometer. Road speed fifteen miles an hour, revs one fifty. One gloved hand pulled back on the reversing lever. Ten was the limit through towns, fixed by the laws of the realm; and Jesse had no intention of being run in for exceeding it. The firm of Strange had always kept well in with the J. P. s and Serjeants of police; it partially accounted for their success. Entering the long High Street, he cut his revs again. The Margaret, baulked, made a frustrated thunder; the sound echoed back, clapping from the fronts of the grey stone buildings. Jesse felt through his boot soles the slackening pull on the drawbar and spun the brake wheel; a jack-knifed train was about the worst blot on a driver's record. Reflectors behind the tail lamp flames clicked upward, momentarily doubling their glare. The brakes bit; compensators pulled the trail load first, straightening the waggons. He eased back another notch on the reversing lever; steam admitted in front of the pistons checked Margaret's speed. Ahead were the gas lamps of town centre, high on their standards; beyond, the walls and the East Gate. The serjeant on duty saluted easily with his halberd, waving the Burrell forward. Jesse shoved at the lever; wound the brakes away from the wheels. Too much stress on the shoes and there could be a fire somewhere in the train; that would be bad, most of the load was inflammable this time. He ran through the manifest in his mind. The Margaret was carrying bale on bale of serge; bulkwise it accounted for most of her cargo. English woollens were famous on the Continent; correspondingly, the serge combers were among the most powerful industrial groups in the Southwest. Their manufactories and storing sheds dotted the villages for miles around; monopoly of the trade had helped

BOOK: Pavane
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