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The Weeping Ash

Joan Aiken

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  Copyright © 1980 by Joan Aiken Enterprises, Ltd.

  Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

  Cover art by Aleta Rafton

  Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

  The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

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  Fax: (630) 961-2168

  Originally published as The Lightning Tree in 1980 in the UK by Gollancz and as The Weeping Ash in 1980 in the United States by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This edition issued based on the paperback edition published in 1982 in New York by Warner Books.


  Front Cover

  Title Page























  About the Author

  Back Cover


  On the night of April 4, 1775, a sad and singular event in the life of Henry Goble, a professional gardener in the employ of the third Earl of Egremont, was to change him overnight from a cheerful, even-spirited fellow, fond of a mug of beer, a game of bowls, and a friendly argument, into a silent, withdrawn, brooding misanthrope.

  The chain of events which led to this transformation began by mischance. Goble had, in his kindhearted manner, gone surety for one of his workmates, a lively feckless Italian landscape gardener named Ridotti, who had been brought over to Petworth, where Lord Egremont had his principal residence, to assist in the work of improving the park and gardens of Petworth House.

  Ridotti, a spendthrift, carefree Latin, albeit a clever gardener, had been so thoughtless as to incur a huge debt for à la mode clothes and a few gardening books, become bankrupt, and then succumb to an inflammation of the lungs, due to the foggy English winter, which quickly carried him off, so that when his creditors arrived all they could do was seize his handful of possessions in part settlement of the debt and have the unfortunate Henry Goble cast into Petworth jail.

  Goble, a steady, middle-aged citizen of Petworth, was at first not too distressed by this incarceration, apart from the affront to his pride. Lord Egremont, at present visiting estates in Northumberland, was expected back within a couple of days and as soon as he returned it was all Lombard Street to a China orange that he would advance the necessary funds to his gardener, for he was a kindly, liberal employer and had a strong sense of justice.

  Meanwhile Goble settled down philosophically enough in his dismal accommodation. Apart from himself and a drunken carter, who had been taken up for rowdiness and causing a breach of the peace, the Petworth prison was unoccupied at present, which was just as well. Goble, munching the penny loaf which was a prisoner’s allowance of food for the day, decided that one of the first things he must do when released was to draw Lord Egremont’s attention to the dismal state of the town jail. It would be easy enough to mention it while they were pacing out the new pleasure grounds, or in the park, discussing the depth of the ha-ha—all that airy space would present a most forcible contrast to this wretched little pair of rooms, barely six feet high, which, on occasion, might have to accommodate ten or twenty prisoners, male and female, all higgledy-piggledy together. There was no source of heat, no water, no yard, no means of earning money. A leather bag outside the door bore a label, “Pray Remember the Poor Prisoners,” but Henry, in previous days, passing by on his lawful occasions, had not, that he could recall, ever seen any food or money placed in it. Indeed earlier that year, in January, three out of a batch of eight had died of hunger and cold after only two or three weeks’ incarceration. Shivering, Henry Goble thanked his stars that Ridotti’s creditors had turned up in April; even now the dank little stone-walled brick-floored room was wretchedly cold.

  Perhaps God sent me here, Goble thought, for he was a religious man in a simple, straightforward way; perhaps He arranged it because He reckoned I could persuade his lordship to make some improvements to the place.

  This being resolved to Henry’s satisfaction, he relieved himself in a corner, with reluctance (since no receptacle was provided), rolled himself up on a truss of straw, and attempted to forget his situation in sleep.

  He had no success. The place was too chill, too dank, too foul. The smell—so different from honest garden muck—nauseated him, the wet atmosphere seemed to penetrate his bones. The carter, lost to the world, snored shatteringly in his corner.

  Out of all patience, at last, Goble yelled for the aged keeper.

  “Bring half a dozen candles, Mudgeley, you old weasel!”

  Candles, at least, would help disperse the stink, and he could warm his hands over them.

  “Candles? Where be the money for them to come from?” replied Mudgeley sourly on the other side of the door. He was aggrieved at being woken from his first sleep.

  “My mother will give it you in the morning, you know that.”

  “Ah—an’ she’ll think shame to have her son in the lockup,” Mudgeley said spitefully.

  Goble’s parents kept a bakery in a narrow street called Bywimbles, near the church.

  “Never you mind what she’ll think, you fetch me a light!” said Goble.

  “Ar right, ar right,” grumbled Mudgeley, and slowly hobbled off to a chest where he kept various perishables, out of the way of the rats. Returning at length, he thrust a bundle of tallow dips through a grille in the door, with the admonition, “Don’t ’ee call me again, now—for bawl as much as ’ee will, I shan’t pay no heed.” And he retired to his own unsavory couch.

  Tucking the damp straw under him, Goble set his candles in a ring, fixing them to the bricks by their own wax, and then huddled himself over them, warming his hands on their tiny heat. How long would they last—a couple of hours, three? Daylight at five, that gave him only two hours of dark to endure.

  He did his best to distract himself by making plans to sow peas, order a load of gravel for the pleasure gardens, and remind his lordship that the young trees in the park must be fenced or the deer would nibble them.

  Then—some white wavering brightness higher than the light from the candles catching his eye—he looked up, to find himself confronted by an undoubted specter.

  Henry Goble had never seen a ghost in his life but there
could be no possible question about this one. It was translucent, vaporous, gleaming, undulatory; but it had a recognizably human face and two piercing eyes with which it mournfully fixed him.

  “Eh! Wh-what do you want?” whispered Goble. The apparition’s whole aspect was one of sad, earnest pleading; Goble found that he was not afraid for himself, but nonetheless this spectral visitor filled him with a deep sense of doom and foreboding.

  “My name is Wilshire!” announced the specter. “Ned Wilshire—poor, poor Ned Wilshire. Remember that!”

  Afterward, in the hundreds of nights that he spent pondering over this scene, Goble could never recall how the tones of the specter’s voice had sounded to him—only that they had possessed a singularly penetrating quality, had seemed to strike straight through to his very soul, rather than impinging on his fleshly ears. Each word the phantom addressed to him remained in his memory, as if recorded on granite, until the day he died. “My name is Ned Wilshire, and I was most inhumanely starved to death in this place! I ask for vengeance. If my heartless brother had paid heed to my necessity, I should be living yet. Remember poor Ned Wilshire—poor Ned Wilshire that died of hunger! I ask that my brother be sought out and that my anguish be visited upon his head. Remember me!”

  After the inconsiderate manner of its kind, the specter then vanished, without revealing its brother’s name or direction, or even divulging if the latter were yet alive.

  Needless to say, poor Goble, after this shocking visitation, remained awake, rigid with cold and horror, for all the remaining hours of that night, while his candles slowly guttered and went out. When at last morning came, old Mudgeley was relieved by Boxall, the day keeper, a distant cousin of Goble’s, whose twenty-pound-a-year salary did not render him too proud to chat with the prisoners; of him Goble instantly demanded to know whether a man called Ned Wilshire had ever been shut up in Petworth prison. The name Wilshire was not a local one. Boxall did not recall such a name, but he had held his position only two years; he good-naturedly agreed to look through the records and presently came back to report that there had been a Wilshire, who had died three years ago, of the jail fever.

  “Fancy that, now! He told ye a true word,” Boxall repeated several times wonderingly, as if specters could not, in general, be relied upon, and one that spoke the truth was something quite out of the common way.

  “Wilshire?—I wonder where he come from?” muttered Henry Goble. As yet he felt nothing but a kind of weary impatience—the fatigue of a busy man who has a new and unlooked-for task thrust upon him when he is already put about with work. Somehow he was now faced with the necessity of finding this man’s brother and bringing him to a consciousness of his criminal neglect.

  “Maybe he come from Wiltshire,” suggested Boxall helpfully. “There do be a lot o’ folk down that-a-way, I hear tell.”

  This unconstructive dialogue was now rudely interrupted by the clattering arrival of a coach and four outside the prison.

  “Hey there! Open up!” bawled a voice outside.

  “Now what’s to do?” muttered Boxall, stumping off to the entrance. “’Tain’t the day for petty sessions, nor that bain’t Constable Hoad’s voice; onyway, he be away to Byworth.”

  The coach outside proved to contain a couple of impress officers, on their way through from Godalming to Portsmouth. They had with them a group of captured smugglers, very sheepish, shackled together, but the officers were in a sour humor, having hoped to secure a much larger gang in a midnight pounce at a well-known smugglers’ rendezvous called Gunshot Heath on the far side of North Chapel. Evidently word of their intentions had got about beforehand and the haul had fallen far short of their hopes.

  “We’ll relieve you of your jailbirds, at all events—that’ll be a saving for you on victuals,” the impress officer said to Boxall.

  “Eh, I dunno about that—by rights the magistrates did oughta know, afore ye take ’em,” Boxall said doubtfully.

  “Damn it, don’t argue, man—here’s my warrant, and you shall have a receipt for them, all right and tight. Hurry up,” he called to his men, “fetch them out!”

  With considerable reluctance, Boxall gave in; Goble and the dazed carter were thrust into the coach, chained together, along with the group of smugglers. Goble was hardly less dazed than the carter at this sudden turn in his affairs; he knew about the exactions of the press gang, naturally, but, safe in his lordship’s employ, had never expected to be seized himself and was, indeed, approaching the upper age limit of fifty-five, beyond which a man was supposed to be immune. But of course no restrictions attached to prisoners in jails; they were fair game for anybody.

  He found voice to say, “Tell my mother,” to Boxall, who still stood gaping, at the door of his empty jail; then the driver’s whip cracked, the horses broke into a trot, and the coach clattered out of town. Goble was not to see Petworth again for thirteen years. During that period he had abundant time to meditate on the last piteous commission of poor Ned Wilshire.


  When sixteen-year-old Fanny Herriard became, through the instrumentality of her father the Rev. Theophilus and with his full consent and approval, betrothed to forty-eight-year-old Thomas Paget, the regulating officer of Gosport, she was under no illusion as to the romance of the match. She did not make any attempt to convince herself that Mr. Paget was a heroic or dashing character—despite the fact that he preferred to be called Captain Paget: in point of fact, as she knew, a regulating officer was hardly to be distinguished from a civilian—and besides, Papa said that Mr. Paget only carried the rank of lieutenant. Moreover the prospective bridegroom was a widower, with two daughters already older than Fanny herself, and one younger, and until this year he had possessed little more than his pay of one pound a day and additional ten shillings subsistence money. (His previous wife, it was to be inferred, had been able to bring him some money of her own).

  Recently, however, Captain Paget had benefited by a stroke of good fortune which, quite unexpectedly, enabled him to contemplate a second marriage, one this time for pleasure rather than for convenience. A distant cousin of his, whom he had never even met, having herself succeeded to an immense—and quite unanticipated—legacy, just as she had contracted an alliance with a wealthy man of rank, had the happy and liberal notion of seeking out the more impoverished members of her family and sharing her good fortune with them. The astonished Thomas, therefore, found himself not only endowed, out of the blue, with a handsome competence, enough to enable him to buy a thriving business, but also possessed for an indefinite period of a larger and much more comfortable house than his own, at a very reasonable rental.

  The reason for this additional piece of luck was the devoted attachment of his generous cousin Juliana to her new-wedded husband, a Dutch nobleman who, up to the time of his marriage, had served as an equerry and intelligence agent in the entourage of the Prince of Wales. However, during the previous year, 1796, Count van Welcker had been delighted to find himself repossessed of some family estates in Demerara, upon the recapture of that region for the British by Laforey and Whyte. In consequence of this, the count was obliged to take leave of absence from the prince’s service and make a journey which might be of some years’ duration. His bride, unable to contemplate the prospect of such a long separation, had elected to accompany him, and she therefore obligingly offered Thomas Paget her own house in Petworth until the (doubtless far distant) date of her return.

  With all these advantages, it could not be said that Captain Paget was particularly handsome or interesting in his person: he was a plain, square, dry-looking man, with sandy hair, rather thin lips, pale blue eyes, two fingers missing on one hand, discolored teeth, and a curt, short manner of speaking; but still it was to be hoped that having been the recipient of such generosity would release in him hitherto suppressed qualities of kindness and liberality; and in any case several of Fanny’s unmarried sisters (she was the youngest of eight)
thought, and said, that Fanny had done very well for herself, very well indeed, considering that Papa could afford to give his daughters only £200 apiece as dowry. The Rev. Theophilus Herriard was a hardworking Church of England rector, long since widowed, and his daughters might think themselves lucky to catch husbands at all.

  Only Fanny, a shy, sensitive girl with a considerable reserve of delicate pride, knew the full measure of her own luck: that she was enabled, by this marriage, to get away from home before her sharp-eyed siblings could discover the intensity of the anguish that she was going through on account of her rejection by Barnaby Ferrars, the squire’s happy-go-lucky son.

  “Marriage?” he had said, laughing heartily. “You thought we might be married? Why, goosey, my father would never allow it! No, no, my dear little sweetheart, we must be like two butterflies, that flutter and dance and kiss in midair—so!—and then flit on to other meetings; you will find some good, kind, wormy fellow who will cosset and spoil you all the days of your life; and I—I shall never forget you, dear little wild rose, and the happy haymaking we passed together, when I am married to some dull lady of fortune who will help repair the inroads that my father’s gambling has made on his estates. Gold—gold I must be sold for gold, my angel”—and he had tickled her chin with a buttercup. For their flirtation—innocent enough, heaven knew—had taken place during a warm and beautiful June, when the whole village—schoolchildren, grandparents, squire’s sons, and rector’s girls—had all helped in the meadows to get in the splendid crop of hay. But then Barnaby’s father, Squire Ferrars, had fulfilled his promise to buy his son a commission in the Hussars. Fortunately by the day, some weeks later, when Barnaby came whistling along to inform the Herriard family, assembled for evening tea drinking, of his imminent departure to join his regiment, Fanny, too, had been able to gather the shreds of her pride and dignity around her—it was that little air of self-possession and reserve which, did she but know it, had attracted his notice to her in the first place—and could tell him, with cool decorum masking a breaking heart, that her own betrothal had been arranged; that she would be marrying Captain Paget, a school acquaintance of her father’s, in September.