His only thought is for revenge... Inspired by the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1615, Judith Lennox's magnificent novel tells the story of Reynardine, the mysterious highwayman. Perfect for fans of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton. Seventeenth-century London: corrupt, decadent and dangerous; a playground for the ambitious in search of power, wealth and position. Richard Galliers, returning from three years in exile, wants none of it. His only thought is for revenge. Mall Conway, the beautiful and headstrong daughter of a Cambridgeshire gentleman is bored; bored with country life and with the restrictions of society. But her peaceful existence is shattered all too soon when Galliers inadvertently involves her in his determination to bring down a deadly enemy... Galliers' relentless quest takes him from the squalor of taverns and brothels and the tawdry glitter of playhouses to the decadent allure of Jacobean London's great houses. And to the bleak wastes of the East Anglian Fens, where Reynardine, the mysterious highwayman, reigns, the terror of all weary travellers. What readers are saying about Reynardine : 'A super novel and one of Judith Lennox's best if you want excitement, mystery and romance ' 'She writes so beautifully and nostalgically... Judith Lennox is truly a great writer ' ' Five stars '
Release date: April 9, 2015
Print pages: 354
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Amongst the leaves so green
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Reynardine.
LONDON: brittle, seductive London, calling the enterprising and ambitious to its learned, spendthrift court, its great parks and playhouses, its gaming houses and bordellos. A cast of a dice and a fortune’s made or lost, a flick of a card and a reputation tumbles.
If Giles Galliers had not been three parts drunk when he had finally found his brother, he might have kept a better guard on his tongue.
Embattled with a large quantity of anger, a peppering of apprehension and an ever-present misery that made him want to howl like a night hag, Giles had thus far found alcohol much the best salve for his wounded heart. So he had drunk at Amyott, before he had left home, his mother clucking and sniffing somewhere in the background. And he had drunk at most of the reasonable taverns on the long, hot ride from Essex to London, remaining more or less upright in the saddle because of his horsemanship, not his sobriety. At Epping he had found an inn for the night, and dreamed, to his surprise, neither of Anna nor of Richard, but of sea monsters that rose from the deep, and gnawed away his limbs, neatly, one by one.
Breakfasted on ale, dined on ale, and fortified by more ale during a tedious search of the more squalid parts of London, Giles had scratched irritably at the modest ruff he wore about his neck and had mentally added a scarlet blossoming of flea bites to his already considerable list of troubles. Had Richard the decency to keep a suitable London address … had Richard the decency not to reappear at this inconvenient time, newborn like some discreditable butterfly from a chrysalis of scandal and rumour … then he, Giles Galliers, might still be in Essex, perfectly content with his crumbling inheritance and carping mother, because he had Anna. But decency had never been Richard’s failing, so Giles trudged from the Mitre to the Mermaid, from Cheapside to Holborn, a headache competing with the flea bites for his attention. In Holborn he found Esmé Molyneux and, after a pleasant meal and a jug of water to tip over his head, set off for the Dagger.
It was still light outside, an agreeably warm summer’s evening. But the Dagger tavern was black, night black, as black as the rogues and scoundrels that infested it. It was also smoky and noisy; and famous equally for its dark, lethal Dagger ale, its pies ornamented with a representation of a dagger and a magpie, and the criminal nature of its clientele. You went to the Dagger if you wanted assistance with a venture that was rather less than legal; you went to the Dagger if you wanted to win, or lose, a large amount of money at dice and cards. The low-ceilinged room was crammed to the rafters with gamesters, their hungry eyes intent upon hazard, one-and-twenty, ruff, or primero. Giles’s brown eyes travelled the width of the room, searching every crowded table, surveying a myriad of unknown faces in the hope of finding one familiar face. Assuming, of course, that Richard would still be familiar. Three years was a long time.
He saw him, in a far corner of the room, a dark head bent over a game of dice. Giles’s hands, loose at his sides, fisted once, briefly, startling the pickpocket who had reached out fluid fingers to take the silk handkerchief that trailed so temptingly from his doublet. Then Giles elbowed his way through the whores, the cutpurses, the vagabonds and thieves to stand behind his brother’s table.
Richard had not, he thought, seen him. But as Giles reached out to touch his brother’s velvet shoulder (Richard calling and throwing a seven; the bearded man opposite him sliding, reluctantly, another coin to Richard’s side of the table), his hand was stayed when Richard looked up and said, ‘Giles. How pleasant.’ As though it had been three days since they had met, not three years. So Giles, finding nothing to say other than his brother’s name, quickly took a jug of ale from the passing pot boy’s tray, sat at the table, and glowered until the penniless bearded man rose and left.
When he had consigned his dice and his winnings to his pocket, Richard looked across at Giles and said, ‘You had my letter, then?’
Richard’s letter had been his first communication with his family since he had ridden, so long ago, through Amyott’s gates. Madam, kindly accept my condolences on the recent death of your husband, Lord Amyott … Lady Amyott had passed the letter to Giles without comment, and had continued her description of her latest malady. Only Giles, kind, uncomplicated Giles, had noticed the brightness of her eyes, the shiver in her voice.
‘We received it about a month ago,’ Giles said. He added hastily, ‘Mother isn’t very well at present.’
‘Ah.’ Richard leaned back in his chair, but his eyes, green-gold and lucent, did not leave Giles. ‘Nothing serious, I trust?’
Giles shook his head and applied himself conscientiously to his ale. He thought Richard had altered – how, he was not exactly sure. He still looked the same – perhaps the sun-browned, high-cheekboned face was leaner, more fined down; perhaps the heavy-lidded green eyes were more experienced, more cynical – but it was not that. There was a reserve which, though it might mask the wildness of former years, hinted at something disquieting, dangerous, behind it. There were, of course, a hundred questions that Giles would have liked to ask, yet he found he could utter none of them. There were subjects that must not be touched on. A refusal in the clear, hard eyes made Giles, even though he was the elder by almost two years, fall silent. Banalities such as where have you been and what did you do rose to the forefront of Giles’s brain and were effectively drowned by another mouthful of sweet, dark Dagger ale.
‘And Amyott?’ said Richard, lazily breaking into what had seemed, to Giles at least, an increasingly awkward silence. ‘Amyott still stands? Our neighbours – our friends – something must have happened since I left England. The Askews, the Deans, the Murrays –’
‘I hope to marry Anna Murray.’
There, it was out, and Giles, putting down his tankard with a thump, experienced a wave of almost unbearable longing.
‘To marry? You have finally forsworn the pleasures of the town, Giles?’
There was an edge of mockery in Richard’s voice, but Giles ignored it, and staring down into the empty depths of the ale jug saw only Anna, with her thick chestnut hair and gentle grey eyes. ‘I have been at Amyott since father died,’ said Giles. ‘The Murrays were at the funeral. And really, Anna is the loveliest creature …’
He fell silent again. The Galliers and the Murrays had known each other vaguely for some years, but differences of religion, coupled with Giles’s absences and Anna’s domestic duties (her mother had died when she was eleven, leaving her with a substantial assortment of younger siblings) had combined to keep Giles and Anna apart. Anna Murray was twenty-seven, only one year Giles’ junior, with heavy family responsibilities and a father with increasingly Puritan leanings. But nothing of the spinster clung to her: she was tall, graceful, with a perfect clear skin, fine eyes, and yards of shining chestnut hair. Giles had been totally unprepared for the emotions that had swamped him when Anna Murray had called to offer her condolences after Lord Amyott’s death in May. Giles had had many love affairs – he was good-looking, generous and easy going, with a streak of devilment in him that women found exciting. But he had coasted through these amours, writing perhaps a bad sonnet when the lady transferred her affections to another but shedding not a tear. But his feelings for Anna had been instant and irrevocable, and, best of all, they had been reciprocated.
From across the table, through a smattering of aggrieved argument from the benches at their side, Giles heard Richard prompt gently:
‘And Brother George?’
‘Oh, George Murray is in London.’ Giles signalled to the pot boy to refill his tankard. ‘George dices his allowance away quite nicely – keeping it well hidden from his father’s ears, of course.’
‘But not all gossip has been kept from John Murray?’ Richard’s clear gaze met Giles’s troubled one. ‘Come, Giles, if your suit with Miss Murray had met with any success, you wouldn’t be drinking yourself to insensibility in the Dagger.’
Beside them, someone had lost once too often. Shielding himself from the sudden cascade of bodies, ale jugs and furniture, Giles said gloomily, ‘Some bastard saw fit to remind him of your past career,’ and he threaded his hands through his brown hair as he recalled John Murray, in a particularly self-righteous frame of mind, dismissing him from the doorstep of the Murrays’ Saffron Walden house.
Richard’s smile, Giles thought when he looked up, was that of a cat which has just cornered a particularly large and juicy mouse. ‘Dear me, brother,’ he murmured, flicking the undoubtedly expensive lace of his cuffs back from his long hands. ‘Scandal takes a long time to die down.’
Giles ducked as a chair flew through the air, just missing his head. ‘Well, you didn’t time your reappearance too well, Richard,’ he said, feeling justification in his resentment. ‘You were supposed to be piloting a corsair’s galley round the Mediterranean.’
The cat’s smile became positively tigerish. ‘Well, I always did have a penchant for large ships, my dear. But it was a pinnace, not a galley.’
In spite of himself, Giles grinned. ‘Do you remember the Fens, when we took the eel trapper’s boat? We were sailing for the Americas, I believe. You were pilot then, I was master, and –’
‘– and Jeremy the ship’s boy.’
The smile had gone, Richard’s eyes were blank, devoid of warmth. Inwardly cursing himself, Giles reached for the ale jug. He heard Richard say: ‘And our neighbour at Kingscote? The good Sir Nicholas Carleton – he is, I trust, quite well?’
The ale had gone to Giles’s head, blurring the sound of the protesting gamblers, yanked forcefully from their seats and kicked into the street, blurring also the two whores, one fair, one brown-haired, who had taken their place. But not blurring the image of his brother opposite him, waiting, apparently carelessly, for an answer to an apparently casual question.
‘Carleton is rarely at Kingscote,’ said Giles, choosing his words with the artistry of one who has begun to see the yawning pits open before him. ‘He is generally at Court.’
‘So his fortunes continue to rise.’
And Richard, his dice nestled once more in his palm, no longer looked at Giles, nor at the fair-haired whore who edged steadily closer, nor at the tangle of thieves and gamesters who roared and heaved and sweated on the Dagger’s scuffed wooden floor. Giles, watching him, answered some of the questions he had not been able to face asking. Richard had travelled South; his skin was not the colour of a man who has endured three northern winters. He was well dressed, his doublet a good black velvet, his shirt a lace-trimmed silk. But God, it should have been possible to talk to him, to meet those disconcerting, too familiar eyes, and say: The past is over, and should be forgotten. But it was not possible. There was a barricade between them, and Giles knew that even if he were to drink the Dagger dry he would not cross that barricade.
But the coldness had gone from Richard’s eyes, his voice was flippant. ‘So who else prospers in London, Giles? The Scottish faction were doing rather well when I left, I recall.’
Through an increasing haze, Giles considered the Byzantine intricacies of the Court of King James at Whitehall. ‘If you mean Robert Kerr,’ he said, grasping thankfully at the change of subject, ‘then he has been made Earl of Somerset – and Lord Chamberlain. Oh, and he is married – to a Howard. Frances Howard – you remember her, surely, Richard?’
Outside, the sky had almost darkened. The heads of the revellers were framed black against the dark blue of the Dagger’s small window panes. Their voices lost in the general uproar, they seemed to Giles like the writhing stylized figures of a dumb-show. Threading through the muttering, the shouting, the singing, was Richard’s voice, soft and seductive.
‘There is a lady sweet and kind, was never face so pleased my mind … Yes, I remember Frances Howard. But, Giles, she was married to the Earl of Essex.’
‘Yes.’ The brown-haired whore was smiling at Giles. He returned the smile, and three faces swam before him: the whore’s, well painted to hide the pock marks; Anna’s, dimmed and distressed through the window of her bedchamber; Frances Howard’s, glittering and unobtainable on the arm of Robert Kerr, the King’s Scottish favourite.
He collected his thoughts, and said, ‘There was some scandal – the details are hideously complicated. Frances Howard married Robert Kerr in 1613. Last Christmas in fact. So the Howards are in even greater favour than ever. Are you –’ his gaze returned slowly to his brother, discovering a new possibility in the silk, the velvet, the jewellery ‘– are you considering a career at Court?’
The dice tumbled from Richard’s hand to the table. ‘Now, there’s a wager for you, Giles. For – let me see – the company of these two ladies for an entire night’ the women giggled ‘– for that not inconsiderable pleasure, I will oust Robert Kerr from King James’s heart – no? Perhaps not. Perhaps Kerr has qualities even I do not possess. Perhaps I should consider a different calling. What openings are there, Giles, for an impoverished second son with an expensive taste in women, alcohol and dice?’
‘The Church’, said Giles, helpfully. And then, entering into the spirit of things, ‘No – you might turn Puritan, and God, life would be dull … An apothecary –’
‘Too drab. Black robes and impenetrable mumblings about the constellations. Try again.’
‘An alchemist –’
‘’Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me –’
‘A wherry man. Or are you obsessed with pinnaces? A rat catcher – a coney catcher – a highwayman!’
Richard’s arm had curled about the fair-haired whore’s plump shoulders. Giles felt a soft hand take his and begin to stroke his fingers very gently, one by one.
‘Dashing in a black cloak and mask?’ Richard’s eyes, reflecting the tallow candle on the table, glinted. ‘A touch theatrical, don’t you think, Giles? But a good, steady income – although the penalty for failure’s a mite distracting –’
The soft hand had been replaced by a mouth that kissed his palm, a tongue that flicked at the tips of his fingers.
Giles was inspired.
‘A wager, Richard,’ he said.
When Giles stood up, weaving unsteadily through the crowds to answer a call of nature, Richard Galliers raised his tankard in salute. ‘Then let’s follow darkness like a dream, brother,’ he said, softly, and kissed the fair-haired whore on her painted lips.
‘Damn the woman!’
Martin Grosse cursed as his horse slipped again in the pale Cambridgeshire mud. He righted himself in the saddle, pushed his sparse damp hair out of his eyes, and spurred on his bony and uncooperative mare.
‘Damned flat place!’ he cursed again, unwilling to admit even to himself that, in this alien and soaking county, he was lost. His eyes scanned the horizon for signs of habitation, his mind tempted by visions of hot ale, fresh bread and ham, and perhaps a kind and docile country girl on his knee. Then he remembered the Countess of Somerset, and looked instead at the track ahead for, even if he had had the luck to find a village with a warm and cosy inn, he could not have stopped. ‘This is to be at Hinxton by nightfall,’ she had said, pressing the letter into his hand – and looking into her clear, hard blue eyes, he had not dared disobey.
It was getting perilously near nightfall now – greenish-grey clouds filled the darkening skies, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to make out the ill-defined path in front of him. The rain sheeted relentlessly down making the landscape even more featureless. He could just make out a blurred shape in the small copse a little way ahead of him – and it was moving, slowly. Grosse clutched his knife under his cloak, his keen eyes trying to pierce the rain and dark – and then relaxed as the shape formed into the figure of a bowed old woman.
‘Alms for a poor beggar woman, sir, that has no home but the woods and ditches.’
Grosse glimpsed a pleading face, darkened by sun and wind, half hidden by the folds of a dirty old shawl. In no mood for charity, he was about to push the frail old body out of his path, when another vision of that warm and kindly inn prompted second thoughts.
‘Am I on the road for Hinxton, old woman?’
As she hesitated, his hand searched through his pocket for a coin to help ease her memory.
In the unthinking moment of stooping to give the beggar her bribe, Grosse never saw how the knife reached his throat. He knew, however, that it was an Italian knife, long, thin, sharp, and utterly deadly, its tip scratching the skin over his windpipe, its handsome jewelled haft held unwaveringly by a young, strong, and unquestionably male hand.
Eyes that were not old and rheumy, but young, and a curious cat-like amber-green, stared coolly into his face.
‘Your money and your jewels, sir,’ said the voice softly. ‘Now.’
If he had not been sent on what he considered to be a damn fool errand, if it had not been such foul weather for late August, if he had not been taken in by such an old and obvious trick, then Martin Grosse might not have lost his temper. After all, he knew himself to be carrying little of any value, except possibly the letter, which would be of no interest to a highwayman. But he had never been a placid man, and he had rarely been outmatched in a fight. He was heavy, too, his body far bulkier than the comparatively slight form swathed in dirty rags before him.
With a roar of anger he lurched backwards, kicking with his spurred boot to stab violently into the crone’s side. Simultaneously, Grosse swung for the arm holding the dagger.
He had almost expected it to be easy. As it was, he had just long enough momentarily to respect the other man’s skill in the split second between being thrown from his horse and his head making hard and painful contact with an old beech tree. Then, almost thankfully, he lapsed into unconsciousness.
In the shelter of the beech tree, the highwayman knelt by Grosse’s prone body. Systematically, he began to search his pockets, removing what little coin and valuables he found. From an inside pocket of the soaking blue doublet he withdrew a folded and sealed piece of paper. The seal had broken in the struggle. He studied the seal for a moment, and then, pushing back the dirty cloth covering his head to reveal dark hair, slightly curled by the driving rain, he sat, his back propped comfortably against the tree trunk, and began to read the letter.
Cambridgeshire’s reputation as one of England’s drier counties looked to be forfeit that day. Four weeks of cloudless summer had suddenly given way to rain: unremitting, dreary, teeming rain. Everything dripped – hedges, leaves, the spiky brambles with their half ripened blackberries, the orchards heavy with small hard green apples. Rain streamed from overburdened gutters, flattened any strips of corn not yet harvested, tore the petals from the scarlet poppies that embroidered the waysides, bruising the silky fragments into a sodden pot pourri.
The roads, always bad, became intolerable. Large flat yellow puddles hid the treacherous pot-holes from the unwary rider. At the verges, water and earth mixed to form a vile, glutinous mire perfidious to both man and beast.
Where the road followed up the slight incline lying to the west side of the Conways’ large Belford estate a stream, opaque and fast running, gathered the water at the top of the incline and spat it downhill, where it created a new sea, fully six feet across, to plague the already over-tired traveller. To the small group of riders, half drowned somewhere between Ickleton and Belford, it seemed the final straw.
The first of the riders checked his horse, steaming and shivering at the edge of the offending puddle. He waited, water dripping from his hat, his nose, his hair, for the second horse to draw level.
‘Your ladyship –’ The man’s words were addressed to the old woman who sat pillion on the second horse, but his eyes met those of the servant in front of her. ‘There’s a quagmire under this, your ladyship. With the burdens they carry, I fear the horses might sink too deep in the mud.’ His voice faltered hopelessly, lost in the constant drumming rain.
Willis, the servant, caught his eye and nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Loader is right, your ladyship. And we should not still be on the road at this time of evening.’ He gestured to the gently wooded darkness around them. ‘Perhaps we could find a decent place for the night, and then set out early again next morning.’ He pulled his cold, wet cloak further about himself.
‘Nonsense!’ The sharp autocratic voice rasped in his ears. Despite the appalling weather, despite being perched uncomfortably pillion, her bony arms clutching her servant’s back as they jolted along waterlogged tracks and bridleways, despite the delays that had lengthened the duration of their journey, Lady Woodroffe was content. A small smile had hung incongruously on her old dry lips for much of the day, and her pleasurable thoughts had distracted her from some of the physical discomforts of the ride. ‘Nonsense! Stop now? Certainly not!’ The third horse, double burdened with another manservant and Lady Woodroffe’s ancient personal maid, had reined in beside them. ‘We must be within a few miles of Robert’s house. I wouldn’t dream of paying some crooked tapster a ridiculous price for a flea-ridden bed!’
Loader stared miserably, resentfully, at the ever deepening puddles. Resigning himself, he swung out of the saddle, his feet sinking into the soft mud.
‘Then we had best walk the beasts across, your ladyship.’
It took a full twenty minutes, and several cold, slippery journeys to relieve the horses of panniers and people, and to carry luggage and women across the undividing Red Sea that blocked their way. It took a further ten minutes of numb fingers fumbling with awkward straps and buckles to reload the horses, kick some of the excess mud off boots and breeches, and lift Lady Woodroffe, still anachronistically resplendent in her early Elizabethan finery, back into the saddle.
The tiny cavalcade set off again in silence, the horses picking their way fastidiously through the puddles and pot-holes. Sheltered behind Willis’s stocky body, Lady Woodroffe smiled to herself again. The thought had occurred to her that it would be even better to arrive late in the evening. Robert would have already made himself comfortable for the night, most of the servants would have already retired, and her late arrival would cause the maximum inconvenience. And the joy of it was that Robert would have to disguise every tiny bit of his irritation. She imagined her nephew’s fat face straining to produce expressions of pleasure and welcome at her arrival. Ah, there were many compensations in wealthy old age, but this was the best of them. With six impoverished greedy nephews and nieces, Lady Woodroffe divided her time, comfortable in the knowledge that each one must attend instantly to her every whim, however unreasonable and inconvenient. The idea of making a visit unforwarned, and at an awkward hour, had been a superb refinement. Margaret had run about like an agitated hen when she had arrived, and then been equally agitated at her sudden unexpected departure earlier today, obviously terrified that her aunt had taken some unpredictable offence. Yes, it was a pleasant way to live out one’s declining years.
The track diverted through oak trees. It was darker under the trees, but the low twisted boughs and heavy green leaves gave some protection against the rain. The horses stepped more easily over the moss and ferns, and their riders relaxed as the likelihood of being thrown into the churning mud receded. They should not have relaxed, however, for the branches of the trees did not bear only leaves and green young acorns. Like some unwanted manna from a malevolent heaven, the threat that fell from above was beautifully planned, exquisitely executed. Thud, thud, thud, the three bodies dropped almost noiselessly, two to drag the men to the ground, the third to land impossibly, and perch precariously, on the rump of Lady Woodroffe’s unfortunate horse. Then the unreal silence broke – the lady’s maid began to scream with hysterical shrillness, the horses, shocked and distracted, joined in the cacophony, and Willis, forcibly disarmed and dismounted, added a deep basso thump and grunt as his weighty frame mingled suddenly with the dead leaves on the ground.
Had they not already been tired and dispirited, they might not have been so easily overtaken. After all, they were not unevenly matched. The burly Willis must have had an advantage of two or three stones over the wiry dark figure who instantly wormed his way up the saddle to grip the reins of the agitated horse, and then held, business-like, a pistol an inch from her ladyship’s withered chin. His two accomplices, similarly masked and cloaked, but of a wilder, ragged, more flamboyant style, their hats plumed and extrovert, their faces extravagantly whiskered, were neither of them giants. But their agility compensated for their lack of muscle, and Loader’s one half-hearted attempt at reprisal left him with nothing more than a sore chin and a grass-stained rear.
Lady Woodroffe turned to look at her attacker. Her old face betrayed not a frisson of fear at the masked and hooded figure before her, and she ignored the intruding pistol. She noted that the man was young – she could tell that from the way he sat, gloved hand confidently holding the reins with the easy balance and assurance of youth she had long ago lost. From underneath the capacious hood of his cloak a little rough untidy hair peeked out. She thought it was red, a shade of hair she had always detested.
Softly, the highwayman spoke.
‘Your pardon for the intrusion, my lady.’ A young voice, slightly accented. ‘Be so good as to let me have what money and jewels you carry, and you may continue on your way.’
Lady Woodroffe’s grey eyes met his. Because of the mask and the darkness, it was hard to see the colour of the man’s eyes – green, hazel, she could not be sure. But they were cold, and their cunning, knowing glitter betrayed an intimacy with life and death more appropriate to old age than youth. Despite her pride, Lady Woodroffe shivered. She had already had her threescore years and ten. With feelings of secure superiority she had watched friends and relatives die in childbirth, of war wounds, of the ague, the plague, the pox … death had many disguises, many deceptions, but her successful combination of selfishness and wealth had secured her safety over the years. But she knew now, looking into this man’s inhuman eyes, that here was a possible death.
She was pleased that her voice was steady as she spoke.
‘Willis. Do as the – gentleman – says.’
There wasn’t that much, really. Some jewels, a purse, and for some reason he took the valuable copy of Seneca that she had filched from Margaret’s library at Frog Bridge. An educated highwayman, thought Lady Woodroffe, some slight measure of confidence returning with the sneer. Then the pistol was removed from her vision, and she felt the warmth of his body disappear from behind and heard the slither of movement as he jumped from the horse’s back.
One of the highwayman’s two associates had dumped her servants’ weapons in a ditch at the boundary of the copse, and had shortly returned, leading three horses. The maid still screeched. Lady Woodroffe eyed her with an emotion close to hatred.
The highwayman said: ‘I suggest you give her a glass of brandy. There’s a nice little inn at the next village.’
Then they were gone, the short drama played out as the three figures melted into blackness and the sound of their horses’ hooves was lost in the distance.
Unwisely, Loader spoke. ‘Shall I do as he said, your ladyship? Find an inn, I mean?’
Taking the heavy embroidered gloves that she clutched in her hand, Lady Woodroffe raised them and struck him about the head, over and over again.
Through lips that were almost paralysed with anger and shame she hissed: ‘Fools! Collect your swords and ride on! And if you do not stop that noise this instant, woman, I will beat you also!’
The oak copse in which the unfortunate Lady Woodroffe had been parted from her possessions skirted the westernmost side of one of Cambridgeshire’s largest estates. The estate was owned by the Conway family, and bore the same name as the nearest village, Belford. Belford House sprawled, rain-sodden, lumbering and untidy, just half a mile away, crouched like some enormous warty toad in the shallow, gently wooded valley.
Belford possessed none of the grace of a Hever nor the imposing might of a Bodiam Castle. Successive generations of Conways, all incorrigible individualists, had added to, adapted, and altered the original structure to suit their own tastes and purposes. No uniformity of desig
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