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Midwinter Nightingale

Joan Aiken

  and furious language, and the turmoil as the helmeted men with pikes and pistols left, dragging his father with them, a shocked silence fell inside the house.

  His mother sat at her rosewood desk with her head propped on her hands, staring at nothing. She looked like an image carved out of salt. Mara the nurse tiptoed and pottered about, offering wine, cider, hot posset, but was sent downstairs to the kitchen. Neither woman took any notice of Lothar, huddled in his corner.

  After a while there came the sound of horses' hooves outside, and carriage wheels. Lothar raised his head. “Did they make a mistake? Are they bringing him back again?”

  “Of course not.”

  Her voice was no more than a cobweb of sound. And no wonder, after all the savage names that had been hurled at her.

  “Who can it be?”

  “It will be Frank Carsluith.”

  Lothar pushed out his lower lip and scowled. “Why does he have to come here? Stuttering and fussing and fidgeting? I don't like him.”

  “He comes with a message from the king.”

  Lothars underlip stuck out even farther.

  “My lord Viscount Carsluith,” announced the nurse. A tall, willowy figure followed her into the room where they were sitting and swept off his plumed hat, revealing a fuzz of silvery fair hair. He glanced round the room and its disordered furniture with a gloomy nod.

  “Shall I bring refreshments, Lady Adelaide?” asked the nurse.

  “No, leave us. …”

  Mara looked round for Lothar, but he had hidden himself behind an overturned settle.

  “My poor dear,” said Carsluith. He crossed the room and kissed Lady Adelaide's hand. “Was it very bad?”

  “Worse than I can say! He cursed me—in such a way…. Do you think the curses of—of somebody like that—do you think that they matter?”

  “No, no, no, of course not!” But Carsluith rather spoiled the effect of this reassurance by making the sign against the evil eye and then asking, “What exactly did he threaten?”

  “Oh, I don't want to think about it.”

  “No—forget it. Think about something better. Your marriage to Baron Magnus is formally annulled. The archbishop of Westminster has set his seal to the deed of annulment as from yesterday. You are completely free.”

  “Free,” she repeated in a wondering, dazed tone.

  “And His Majesty sends a message. He is happy to permit your marriage to Prince Richard of Wales—indeed he—he does not command, but he begs that the marriage may take place as soon as possible. And I think you are well acquainted with the prince's feelings on the matter—”

  “Yes,” she said faintly

  “They suggest that the ceremony should take place at Clarion Wells cathedral next week.”

  “So soon?”

  “It cannot be too soon for the prince's wishes. He is preparing a residence for you at Haymarket Palace.”

  “And this house? Fogrum Hall?”

  “Whatever you wish shall be done with this house, Adelaide. It can have no happy memories for you. It could be pulled down.”

  “I will consider.” Infusing a little more strength into her threadlike voice, she asked, “And the children?”

  “Children?” Carsluith sounded thoroughly startled.

  “Lot—my boy—the son of Magnus—he is five—”

  “I'll be six in three weeks,” corrected Lothar sulkily, scrambling out of his hiding place. Carsluith made only a very slight attempt to disguise his surprise, distaste and disapproval at the discovery of the boy's presence in the room, but good breeding and good nature came to the rescue.

  “Good heavens, young fellow, I had no idea at all that you were here! You must be very happy that our good, kind Prince Richard wishes to marry your mamma. He will be your new father. And a—” He cut himself short.

  “Will Mamma be queen, then, when old King James has died?” demanded Lothar.

  “Yes, she will,” responded Carsluith, after a slight, astonished hesitation. Gad, he thought, the boy's a chip off the old block. We shall have to watch this one. We shall certainly have trouble with him.

  “And when my new father Richard dies, shall I be king?”

  “No, my boy.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because you are not the king's son. My lord Richard of Wales already has a son, Prince Davie, by his first wife, who died. He is the prince of Cumbria. You will be friends with him, I am sure. But, Lady Adelaide, I believe you mentioned children?”

  “Yes,” she answered in a troubled tone. “I understand that Zoe Coldacre had a baby girl who will now be a few months old—Zoe died in childbirth, you may not know—the sister of my nurse, Mara, has charge of the infant, for Zoe's family cast her off—Magnus took no interest in her, but he did not deny that the child was his—

  I believe she is called Jorinda—”

  “She is hardly your responsibility,” objected Carsluith.

  “But, poor child, if I do not undertake the charge of her, what will become of her? And she is Lot's sister, after all.”

  More of that bad blood to worry about, thought Carsluith, but King Jamie is a shrewd old party; he will soon have the problem sorted. Perhaps he can send the brats off to the Colonies. And—thank goodness—their father is safe behind bars for the next fifteen years.

  “When shall I see my proper father?” Lothar wanted to know. “Why did those men take him away? Where has he gone?”

  “He is gone to the Tower of London.”

  “How long will he be there?”

  “Fifteen years,” said Carsluith in a tone from which he could not banish very considerable satisfaction.

  “Is that a prison?”


  “Why? What did he do that was wrong?”

  “You are too young to be told about it. Your father has—a kind of disease—a mixture of sickness and wickedness; he killed several people. Perhaps—it is hoped— he can be cured of his malady while he is confined in prison.”

  “Why does he have to be shut up?” his son asked again.

  “I told you. Because he does harm to people.”

  “I don't want him to be in prison,” Lothar whined, and slammed his fist on a mahogany table so hard that blood spurted from his knuckles. The two adults stared at him in shock and dismay.

  “Lot,” said his mother faintly “go down to Mara and tell her that I said you could have a burnt-sugar frumenty.”

  “I don't want one.”

  “Run along, now—like a good boy”


  “Because your mother says so,” snapped Carsluith.

  “Oh, very'well.” He went out, dragging his feet.

  “When Richard and I are married, he will soon settle down,” said Adelaide, but she said it without conviction.

  “King James will know how to deal with him,” agreed Carsluith in the same doubtful tone. He added, “Now that the boy is out of the way, I can give you this.” And he extracted a small jewel-studded box from his pocket.

  This, when opened, proved to contain a ring, set with an enormous rose diamond. Lady Adelaide gazed at it through tear-filled eyes. The huge stone swelled, glittered, seemed to cover the whole space ahead of her.

  But Carsluith was thinking: There's bound to be trouble ahead. With those children, with that background …

  was notorious for running well behind schedule, and today the passengers could see that it was going to be even later than usual by the time it reached Distance Edge Junction. Here the train was due to divide in half, a passenger coach and four freight cars turning south to Windfall Clumps, while the main part continued westward toward the Combe country, the mountains and the sea.

  Simon, looking out the rain-str
eaked window into the creeping landscape, began to fear that dark would have fallen by the time he reached his destination. He was bound for a solitary manor house situated in a wilderness known as the Devil's Playground because its thickets and swampy woods and overgrown hedgerows were so tangled and mazelike that travelers had been known to get lost among them and wander in circles for days on end.

  Rain splashed down the dirty glass, blurring the view of soggy meadows and waterlogged woodlands. Then— quite unexpectedly—the train jerked to a stop. Peering out, Simon saw that they had come to a tiny wayside halt; he could just make out the words FROG MERE on the single signboard. In the long pause that followed, nothing could be heard but the slap of rain on the roof and a deep sigh from the engine, as if the train were expressing its intention of never moving again.

  But then the silence was broken by the slam of a door. Somebody—astonishingly in such a godforsaken spot— somebody had entered or left the train. Now footsteps came clacking in a purposeful way along the corridor, and the door to Simon's compartment was vigorously slid open.

  Simon sighed, almost as deeply as the train. He was not at all anxious for company.

  The girl who came in gave him an intent, considering look, half frowning, half friendly, before settling herself in the diagonal corner with a swish and flounce of dark brown velvet skirts and a twitch of her long fur driving coat. She neatly aligned her feet in well-polished boots and then, when she had made herself thoroughly comfortable, gave Simon another long, shrewd scrutiny.

  “You look human, anyway!” she remarked. “Really, when a person travels across this country, they hardly know what to expect. I've been told there's still marsh men with webbed feet! So I do like to pick a compartment where there's somebody who at least looks as if he would know what to do if the train broke down.”

  Simon was doubtful whether he deserved this compliment. And he was not at all flattered by her wish to join him. The errand that brought him to this wild secluded country was a particularly private one and he wanted no hint of its nature to leak out. But he had a kind heart and did not like to snub the girl who had chosen his company.

  He had to admit that she looked inoffensive enough. Her hair was dark and short and curved close about her head under a fur cap. Her round freckled face was not pretty—her pink cheeks were too plump, her nose and mouth too big—but she looked lively and keen, dimples showed in her cheeks and a pair of dark gray eyes laughed at Simon as she settled a foreign-looking cat in a cage on the seat beside her.

  “I won't eat you, I promise! And nor will Malkin here, "will you, puss? I can see that you are "wishing me at the "world's end. But I swear that I am really very harmless. I'll even guarantee not to talk at all if you prefer silence. But if you like to talk—as I do—my name is Jorinda.”

  “Mine is Simon.”

  As soon as he had said this, Simon "wished he had held his tongue. But the name did not seem to strike any chord in Jorinda, "who, taking this as an acceptance of her offer to chat, "went on doing so in a low husky confiding voice "with a hint of a chuckle in it.

  “You see, it is like this: My brother has finished school—at least, he was dismissed for bad behavior—if the truth be told—so I decided that I might as well quit my own abode of instruction in Bath (where they quite washed their hands of me in any case; they say I am incapable of grasping anything beyond ABC) so as to be back at Granda's manor before news about my brother reaches him—and so cushion the blow for the old boy. Don't you think that is best? Don't you think it a sensible plan?”

  “Will your grandfather be very angry with your brother?”

  “Oh, yes! Prodigiously! The last time Lot was expelled, Granda had a seizure, and foamed at the mouth, and Dr. Fribble had to bleed him and cauterize and phlebotomize him and put him to bed for three weeks with cold compresses and antiphlogistine and nettle gin—that was after Granda had chased Lot round the stable with a walrus tusk and knocked out two of Lot's front teeth. One trouble is, you see, that Lot is only my half brother; he isn't Granda's grandson. Granda never really wanted to have us wished on him. He was only persuaded by Lord Hatchery, who is our cousin and Master of Foxhounds.”

  “Is your brother younger than you?”

  She shook her head.

  Simon thought she looked rather old to be still at school. Seventeen or eighteen, perhaps? He wondered why she spoke of her grandfather and not her father or mother—where were they? But he was not really interested in her confidences and decided that this would be a good moment, while the train was at a standstill, to walk along to the horse box and check on the well-being of his mare, Magpie.

  “I'm just going to visit my mare,” he said to the girl. “I'll be back in a few minutes.” He stood up.

  But Jorinda had already plunged into an account of how her brother, who was the cleverest person she knew, had been sent to school at Fogrum Hall after being thrown out of Harrow.

  “He has never been able to spell, you see—that's the trouble—as often as not he can't even spell his own name—so teachers think he is stupid, and that makes him so angry. Because, you see, he is not stupid—not in the very least. He has wonderful ideas—about how to run the world—sometimes the things he says are quite amazing. Why are you standing up? Sit down again directly!”

  “I'm going to see my—”

  But the girl swept Simon's objection aside. She grabbed his hand as he moved across the carriage intending to edge past her and step out the narrow doorway into the corridor, and gave it such a jerk that, without intending to, he sat down on the seat opposite her.

  “That's better!” She laughed at him. Her face, Simon thought, was very like that of a squirrel, with round cheeks and slightly protruding teeth and large bright eyes.

  “Are you hungry?” she went on. “My maid will bring in a picnic by and by. After we have gone through customs. Where does that happen?”

  “At Windwillow.”

  “Customs! What a stupid business that is! Who ever could have thought it up? And why? When my pa and ma were young you could travel anywhere, all over the country without these stupid stops and payments—so my old nurse has told me. Why should I be obliged to pay a tax to these customs officers if I take my Granda a present of Shrewsbury cakes or Bath biscuits or Pontefract licorice pipe tobacco?”

  “It came into force when the country was split up into four different kingdoms,” Simon explained, “when the North country and the Combe country and the Wetlands all declared independence from London.”

  “Oh, I know; I know that,” she said pettishly “But still I don't see why these stupid rules should apply to people like us. … It is all very well for farmers and drovers, I daresay. Why, even—” She stopped and bit her lip. “Forgot what I was going to say! Anyway, politics are dull and idiotic—ain't they? Stuff only fit for old gray-beards. In fact I think this country—north, south, east or west—is detestably dull—don't you? But when the old king finally pops off—as he's supposed to do soon— they say everything will be different. Do you think that is true?”

  “I really can't say,” Simon answered carefully. “When King James died and King Richard came to the throne, I don't remember there being much difference.”

  “Ah, but then, King Dick was old Jim Three's son. They were as like each other as two peas in a pod. But now, nobody seems quite sure who the next king will be, which makes it more exciting—don't it? When my pa comes out of jail—”

  She stopped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Her expression was horrified, but her eyes laughed at Simon.

  “Oh, mercy, what have I been and gone and let out now? My brother Lot is always saying that my tongue will be my downfall one of these days! Forget what I said, will you, pray?”

  “Of course,” said Simon politely. “Anyway, people can be sent to prison for all kinds of reasons—” not necessarily criminal ones, he was going on to add, but the girl interrupted him.

  “My pa's reason was lycanthropy—and that's not r
eally his fault, after all. I don't think people should blame him and send him to prison for a failing he was born with—do you? You might as well be sent to jail for having measles. It is wholly unfair! Of course, at the time, there was a lot of trouble. In fact Grandma died of the disgrace. That was when Lot and I were quite little—fifteen years ago—so we don't remember her. Nor Pa, for that matter. He's been in jail for nearly all of my life.”

  “I'm sorry,” Simon said, wondering what lycanthropy was. He had never heard the word. Illegal swinging on lych-gates? Licking ants' nests? Forced entry into liquor stores?

  But the girl was chattering on. “Of course Granda never liked our pa; I've ever so many times heard him say, 'Why m'daughter was so besotted as to go and marry a perditioned werewolf chap I'll never comprehend,' and our old nurse has told me, time and again, that Granda was against the marriage from the very start— though our pa does come from a very grand old ancient family in Midsylvania…. But, as I told you, what's so unfair is that Pa can't help it. So it's really no fault of his. He was furious when they put him in the Tower for fifteen years. Said he'd get even with them all when he came out. Still, he may have changed his ideas while he was inside. Don't you think? People do, so they say….”

  “I believe I have heard of your father,” Simon said cautiously “Is he Baron Magnus Rudh?”

  “Why, yes.”

  The engine sighed again, then let out a loud moan, as if it suffered from acute stomach cramps. The whole train jerked backward—forward—backward again, amid a chorus of men's shouts, loud clanks and hammer blows.

  “They must be adding some more coaches,” Simon said. “I have never known them to do it here before.”

  “Why, do you often travel on this line?”

  “No, not often.” I am no good at this kind of secret, diplomatic business, Simon thought. I wish I were back minding geese in the forest. Or painting in my studio. But painting is what I have been summoned for. Well, I wish that Magpie and I were safe at Darkwater Farm.

  Now a loud bleating, which Simon had been half consciously noticing for the past five minutes, became even louder, quite deafening, as if a hundred sheep had climbed onto the train and were finding themselves seats in the next carriage.