Read The Rose Rent Online

Authors: Ellis Peters

Tags: #Herbalists, #Cadfael; Brother (Fictitious Character), #Stephen; 1135-1154, #Mystery & Detective, #Monks, #General, #Shrewsbury (England), #Great Britain, #Historical, #Traditional British, #Large type books, #Fiction, #History

The Rose Rent (10 page)

BOOK: The Rose Rent
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With the aid of a trailing mooring rope, which had been frayed to suggest that it had parted of itself, they took the stolen boat in tow, and turned to the hard pull upstream,

Cadfael taking an oar, and settling himself solidly on the thwart to try and match Madog’s experienced skill. But when they drew level with the fuller’s workshop they were hailed from the bank, and down to the water’s edge came two of Hugh’s officers, dusty and tired, with three or four volunteers from among the townsmen holding off respectfully at a little distance. Among them, Cadfael observed, was that same weaver Bertred, all brawn and brag, as Hugh had called him, bestriding the greensward with the large confidence of a man who likes himself well, and by the look of him not at all downcast at fetching up empty-handed at the end of his voluntary search. Cadfael had seen him occasionally in attendance on Miles Coliar, though he knew little of him but his appearance. Which was eminently presentable, fresh-coloured and healthy and beautifully built, with the kind of open face which may be just what it seems, or may be well adapted to conceal the fact that there is an inner chamber which is very firmly closed. Something slightly knowing about the apparently candid eyes, and a smile just a little too ready. And what was there to smile about in failing to find Judith Perle, close to the end of this second day of searching for her?

“My lord,” said the older sergeant, laying a hand to hold the boat still and inshore, “we’ve been over well-nigh every tuft of grass between these two reaches of the river, both sides, and nothing to be found, nor a soul who owns to knowing anything.”

“I’ve done no better,” said Hugh resignedly, “except that this must be the boat that carried her off. It was caught in thorn-branches, a little way downstream from here, but it belongs at the bridge. No need to look beyond here, unless the poor woman’s been moved and moved again, and that’s unlikely.”

“Every house and garden along the road we’ve searched. We saw you making down-river, my lord, so we took yet another look round here, but you see everything’s open as the day. Master Fuller made us free of all his holding.”

Hugh looked about him in a long, sweeping, none too hopeful glance. “No, small chance of doing anything here unperceived, at least by daylight, and it was early in the day she vanished. Someone has looked in Master Hynde’s warehouse there?”

“Yesterday, my lord. His wife gave us the key readily, I was there myself, so was my lord Herbard. Nothing within but his baled fleeces, the loft all but full of them, floor to roof. He had a good clip this year, seemingly.”

“Better than I did,” said Hugh. “But I don’t keep above three hundred sheep, small coin to him. Well, you’ve been at it all day, as well take a rest and be off home.” He set foot lightly to the thwart and stepped ashore. The boat rocked softly to the motion. “There’s nothing more we can do here. I’d best get back to the castle, and see if by chance someone else has had better luck. I’ll go in here by the eastern gate, Madog, but we can lend you two rowers, if you like, and help you back upstream with both boats. Some of these lads who’ve been on the hunt with us could do with a voyage back to the bridge.” He cast a glance round the group that held off respectfully, watching and listening. “Better than walking, lads, after all the walking you’ve done this day. Who’s first?”

Two of the men came forward eagerly to uncouple the boats and settle themselves on the thwarts. They shoved gently off into the stream ahead of Madog, and set a practised pace. And it might well be, Cadfael thought, noting how Bertred the weaver hung well back from offering his own stout arms, that his walk home from the nearby castle gate into the town was barely longer than it would have been from the bridge gate after disembarking, so that he saw small gain in volunteering. It might even be that he was no expert with an oar. But that did not quite account for the small, bland smile and the look of glossy content on his comely young face as he withdrew himself discreetly from notice behind his companions. And it certainly did not account for the last glimpse Cadfael had of him, as he glanced back over his shoulder from midstream. For Bertred had lagged behind Hugh and his henchmen as they set off briskly towards the road and the eastern gate of the town, had halted a moment to watch them as they breasted the rise, and then had turned his back and made off at a purposeful but unhurried pace in the opposite direction, towards the nearest stand of woodland, as though he had important business there.

 

Bertred came home for his supper only with the early dusk, to a distracted household which had lost its routine and limped through the day forgetful of work, meal-times, and every other factor that served to mark the hours in an orderly and customary fashion. Miles fretted from workshop to street a dozen times an hour, and ran out to accost any passing soldier of the garrison for news, of which there was none. In two days he had grown so tense and brittle that even his mother, for once daunted into comparative silence, tended to slip aside out of his way. The girls in the spinning room whispered and wondered far more than they worked, and foregathered with the weavers to gossip as often as his back was turned.

“Who’d have thought he cared so much for his cousin!” Branwen marvelled, awed by his strained and anxious face. “Of course a man feels for his own kin, but—you’d have thought it was his bride he’d lost, not his cousin, he goes so grieved.”

“He’d be a sight less concerned for his Isabel,” said a cynic among the weavers. “She’ll bring him a passable dowry, and he’s well enough satisfied with his bargain, but there are as good fish in the sea if she slipped off the hook. Mistress Judith is his keep and future and all. Besides, the two get on well enough, for all I could ever see. He’s got every call to worry.”

And worry he did, in a nail-biting, brow-furrowing frenzy of concern and anxiety that continued unbroken through the day, and at night, when search was perforce abandoned, subsided into a mute, resigned dejection, waiting for morning to renew the hunt. But by this second twilight it seemed every corner of the town had been ransacked, and every house and garden and pasture in the suburbs at least visited, and where were they to look next?

“She can’t be far,” Dame Agatha insisted strenuously. “They’ll surely find her.”

“Far or near,” said Miles wretchedly,”she’s too well hidden.

And some villain holding her, for certain. And how if she’s forced to give way and take him? Then what’s to become of you and me, if she lets a master into the house?”

“She never would, and she so set against marrying. No, that she won’t do. Why, if a man uses her so ill, more like by far, once she’s free of him—as she will be!—to do what she’s thought of doing so long, and go into a nunnery. And only two days now to the day of the rent!” Agatha pointed out. “Then what’s to be done, if that passes and she still lost?”

“Then the bargain’s broken, and there’s time to think again and think better, but only she can do it. Until she’s found there’s nothing to be done, and no comfort. Tomorrow I’ll go out again myself,” Miles vowed, shaking an exasperated head over the failure of the king’s sheriff and all his men.

“But where? Where is there left they haven’t searched already?”

A hard question indeed, and one without an answer. And into this waiting and frustrated household Bertred came sidling in the dusk, discreetly quiet and solemn about the continuing failure to find any trace of his mistress, and yet looking so sleek and bright-eyed that Miles was brutally short with him, not at all his usual good-tempered self, and followed him with a long, glowering stare when Bertred wisely made off into the kitchen. On warm summer evenings it was pleasanter to be outdoors than there in the dim, smoky room with the heat of the fire, even when it was turfed down for the night or raked out until morning, and the rest of the household had gone out on their own ploys. Only Bertred’s mother Alison, who cooked for the family and its workers, was waiting there none too patiently for her truant son, with a pot still warming over the naked fire.

“Where have you been till this time?” she wanted to know, turning on him with the ladle in her hand as he tramped briskly in at the door and went to his place at the long trestle table. He gave her a casual kiss in passing, brushing her round red cheek lightly. She was a plump, comfortable figure of a woman with some worn traces still of the good looks she had handed on to her son. “All very well,” she said, setting the wooden bowl before him with a crash, “after keeping me waiting here so late. And much good you must have done all day, or you’d be telling me now you’ve brought her home, and preening yourself like a peacock over it. There were some of the men came home two hours ago and more. Where have you been loitering since then?”

In the dim kitchen his small, self-satisfied smile could barely be seen, but the tone of his voice conveyed the same carefully contained elation. He took her by the arm and drew her down to the bench beside him.

“Never mind where, and leave it to me why! There was a thing I had to wait for, and it was worth the waiting. Mother…” He leaned close, and sank his voice to a confidential whisper. “… how would you like to be more than a servant in this house? A gentlewoman, an honoured dowager! Wait a little while, and I mean to make my fortune and yours, too. What do you say to that?”

“Great notions you always had,” she said, none too impressed, but too fond to mock him. “And how do you mean to do that?”

“I’m telling nothing yet, not till I can say it’s done. There’s not one of those busy hounds out hunting all this day knows what I know. That’s all I’m saying, and not a word to any but you. And… Mother, I must go out again tonight, when it’s well dark. Never you worry, I know what I’m about, only wait, and you’ll be glad of it. But tonight you mustn’t say a word, not to anyone.”

She held him off doubtfully to get a better look at his smiling, teasing face. “What are you up to? I can keep as close a mouth as any where there’s need. But don’t you go running your head into trouble. If there’s ought you know, why haven’t you told?”

“And spend the credit along with my breath? No, leave all to me, Mother, I know what I’m about. Tomorrow you’ll see for yourself, but not a word tonight. Promise it!”

“Your sire was just such another,” she said, relaxing into smiles, “always full of great plans. Well, if I spend the night wakeful out of pure curiosity, so be it. Would I ever stand in your way? Not a word out of me, I promise.” And instantly she added, with a brief blaze of unease and foreboding: “Only take care! There may be more than you out about risky business in the night.”

Bertred laughed, and hugged her impulsively in long arms, and went away whistling into the dusk of the yard.

His bed was in the weaving-shed with the looms, and there he had no companion to wake and hear him rise and do on his clothes, more than an hour after midnight. Nor was it any problem to slip out from the yard by the narrow passage to the street, without so much as risking being seen by any other member of the household. He had chosen his time with care. It must not be too soon, or there would still be people stirring. It must not be too late, or the moon would be up, and darkness suited his purpose better. And it was dark indeed in the narrow lanes between the overhanging houses and shops, as he threaded the mass of streets between Maerdol-head and the castle. The town gate there on the eastern side was a part of the castle defences, and would be closed and guarded during the night hours. For the past few years Shrewsbury had been safe enough from any threat on the eastern approach, only the occasional brief Welsh raid from the west had troubled the peace of the shire, but Hugh Beringar maintained the routine watchfulness without a break. But the most easterly wicket, giving access to the river under the very towers of the fortress, was there to be used freely. Only in times of possible danger were all the wickets closed and barred, and sentries set on the walls. Horsemen, carts, market wagons, all must wait for the gates to be opened at dawn, but a solitary man might pass through at any hour.

Bertred knew his way in the dark as well as by day, and could tread as lightly and move as silently as a cat. He stepped through the wicket into the slope of grass and bushes above the river, and drew the wooden door closed after him. Below him the flow of the Severn made fleeting ribbons and glints of moving light, just perceptible as tremors in the darkness. The sky was lightly veiled and showed no stars, and was just sufficiently less dark than the solid masses of masonry, earth and trees to show their outlines in deeper black. When the moon came up, more than an hour later than this, the heavens would probably clear. He had time to stand for a moment and think out what he had to do. There was little wind, but he had better take it into consideration, it would not do to approach the watchman’s mastiff at the fulling works downwind. He wet a finger and tested. The slight, steady breeze was blowing from the south-west, from upstream. He would have to move round the bulk of the castle virtually to the fringes of the gardens along the high road, and come about from downwind in a cautious circle to reach the back of the wool warehouse.

He had taken a good look at it in the afternoon. So had they all, the sheriff and his sergeants and the townsmen helping them in the search. But they had not, like Bertred, been in and out two or three times at that warehouse, when fetching away fleeces for Mistress Perle. Nor had they been present in Mistress Perle’s kitchen on the night before her disappearance, to hear Branwen declare her mistress’s intent to go to the abbey early in the morning and make a new charter, rendering her gift of property unconditional. So they had not seen, as Bertred had, Hynde’s man Gunnar drink up his ale and pocket his dice shortly afterwards, and take himself off in some haste, though he had seemed to be comfortably rooted for the evening. That was one more creature besides Bertred who had known of that intent, and surely had slipped so promptly away to disclose it to yet one more. Which one, the old or the young, made no matter. The strange thing was that it had taken Bertred himself so long to grasp the possibilities. The sight of the old counting-house hatch, that afternoon, securely shuttered and barred on the outer side, and probably also made fast within, had been all that was needed to enlighten him. If he had then waited patiently in the cover of the trees until dusk, to see who slipped out from the wicket in the town wall, and exactly where he headed with his rush basket, it had been only a final precaution, to render certainty even more certain.

BOOK: The Rose Rent
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