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The Cuckoo Tree

Joan Aiken



  About the Book

  Title Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  About the Author

  Also by Joan Aiken


  About the Book

  Dido Twite is back in England. But as soon as she sets foot on English soil, mischief awaits her. Marooned with strange inhabitants on the Tegleaze estate, she witnesses some suspicious goings-on: a priceless possession is stolen, a boy kidnapped, a twin sister found. And can she prevent a plot to put St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Thames? Is another wicked Hanoverian conspiracy afoot?

  From the epic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence

  Illustrated by Pat Marriott


  A WILD WESTERLY gale was blowing over the South Downs one November evening when a carriage-and-pair, having slowly ascended the long, gradual hill on the London road some five miles north of the Port of Chichester, came to a halt at the top.

  A girl put her head out of the window.

  ‘Why’ve we stopped here?’ she inquired.

  ‘Why d’you think?’ growled the driver badtemperedly, without turning his head. ‘So’s to give the nags a lay-off, o’ course! I s’pose in the furrin parts overseas where you was raised, horses goes on for weeks together without a bait or dram?’

  It seemed to be his own needs he was consulting rather than those of his horses, however, for he pulled a black bottle out of his pocket and took a swig from it.

  ‘I was raised in London if you want to know,’ retorted his passenger, ‘and where I come from, nags don’t need a rest half an hour after they start off! It’ll be a month o’ Mondays afore we gets to London at this rate! Where are we now?’

  She looked with disfavour at the dark wooded hillsides that surrounded them. Volleys of leaves rattled against the carriage windows and swept the rutted road; fitful bursts of rain made the horses stamp and shiver. A faint green strip of light still showed in the west, but elsewhere the sky was piled with cloud, and in fifteen minutes it would be true night.

  ‘Where? Top o’ Benges, that’s where – if that means owt to you.’ He took another long swallow upending the bottle.

  ‘Not a thing! All I knows is, we must still be a perishing long way from London. Hey! Steady wi’ that tipple, mister! Don’t forget we’ve a sick passenger aboard.’

  ‘Shick, – hup – passenger be blowed,’ grunted the driver. ‘It’s the grey I’m worried about – if he don’t go lame afore we gets to Petworth, I’m sucked in! Why was I ever such a maggot as to say I’d drive ee to Lunnon tonight? Gee woot, you!’ Angrily he shook up the reins, almost shaking himself off the box in the process. The coach started again, and gathered speed on the downhill slope.

  ‘Oh croopus,’ muttered the girl, withdrawing her head from the window. ‘I jist hope we gets to London this side o’ Turpentine Sunday, and all in one piece.’

  ‘What’s amiss, my child?’

  The other passenger appeared to have been dozing. It was dark inside the carriage and little could be seen of him, save that he was a tall man, muffled in numerous capes and rugs. Except for an eye-slit, left so that he could see out, his head was entirely wrapped in bandages, over which he wore an enormous fur hat. He spoke weakly, but with an air of authority.

  ‘It’s our driver,’ returned the girl in a low voice. ‘I suspicioned he was a bit bosky at the start, and now I reckon he’s justabout half-seas-over. Trouble was, none o’ the other drivers would leave for London at five o’clock in the evening.’

  ‘I cannot imagine why not! They might ask what fee they liked, since we are travelling on government business, with dispatches for the Admiralty. Did you not tell them they should be handsomely rewarded?’

  ‘Didn’t make a mite o’ difference. None of them’d stir – said as how we might meet with Gentlemen on the road.’ The girl glanced doubtfully at the black trees on either side.

  ‘Gentlemen!’ her companion exclaimed weakly but testily. ‘Pish! What moonshine!’

  The driver had evidently caught some part of their conversation, for he suddenly burst into raucous song:

  ‘Captain Hughes and young Miss Twite

  Went for a drive – hic! – one shiny night,

  If they don’t end in the Cuckoo Tree

  Pickle my brains in eau de vie!’

  ‘Attend to your business, my man!’ snapped the bandaged passenger, for the horses were now dashing faster and faster down a long, winding hill, and the carriage was beginning to sway alarmingly.

  But the driver only replied, ‘Tooral-eye-ooral, fiddle-eye-ay!’ and cracked his whip in a very carefree manner.

  ‘Put your arm through the strap, Cap’n!’ young Miss Twite exclaimed anxiously, and since, blinkered as he was by his bandages, her companion was unable to find the armhold, she scrambled across the rocking vehicle and slid the heavy leather loop over his elbow.

  ‘Ah! Thanks, my child!’

  She had secured him only just in time. Next instant the coach gave a particularly violent lurch and overturned completely. Young Miss Twite still had hold of the strap; she clung to it tenaciously as she and her companion were flung backwards against the padded seat and then down on to the door of the carriage, which had come to rest lying on its side.

  ‘Cap’n! Cap’n Hughes! Are you all right?’

  No answer. Anxiously, Miss Twite felt his chest, and discovered that he still breathed.

  ‘Fry that coachman!’ she exclaimed, attempting to disentangle herself from her companion.

  ‘Who are you? What’s happened?’ he muttered confusedly.

  ‘It’s Dido, Cap’n – Dido Twite. We’ve had a turn-up, but don’t fret; I’ll see to everything. Mussy knows how,’ she added to herself, ‘seeing I don’t even know how I’m a-going to get out of here – and the driver’s about as much use as a herring in a hockey match. Maybe he’s dead. Anyways, thank goodness the Cap’n isn’t.’

  By stretching up to her full height (which was not great) she was just able to reach the arm-strap dangling from the upper door; she pulled herself up by this, digging her toes into the indentations in the upholstery. Luckily one of the windows had fallen open, and she was able to edge her way through and climb on to the hedge bank. Searching about, she found the coachman, dead or unconscious, in a patch of long grass and thistles; he had apparently been thrown off his box at the first jolt. One of the horses stood with hanging head, very lame; the other was plunging about nervously; it had kicked its way clear of the shafts but was still held by its traces.

  ‘Easy now, mate,’ the girl said, approaching it warily. ‘You and me has got to get better acquainted. Here, have a slab o’ Sussex pudden. It’s a bit squashed, but the landlady at the Dolphin said it will do for supper and breakfast too. You’re welcome to the soggy stuff if it’ll settle your spirits. It’s better inside you than in my pocket, anyways.’

  The large, damp, sweet lump of suet pudding did prove soothing to the horse, and Dido was presently able to unhitch it and lead it round to the side of the overturned coach.

  ‘Cap’n!’ she called. ‘Can you hear me, Cap’n Hughes? I can’t get you out by myself, and I can’t right the coach, so I’m a-going for help. All rug? Shan’t be long – I hope,’ she added to herself.

  No reply came from inside; it seemed likely that the unfortunate captain had fainted again. Dido led the horse alongside the hedge bank, which was about three feet high
, and from the top managed to scramble on to the animal. Unused to being ridden, it started affrightedly, threw up its head and set off at a canter; clinging like a monkey to its mane, Dido was jounced in a most uncomfortable manner from side to side of its broad back. By now her eyes were accustomed to the darkness and she was able to make out that they were in a narrow muddy lane with wooded hills sloping away on either side; no lights or houses were to be seen anywhere.

  ‘Of all the God-forsaken spots to get tippled up in! Don’t pull so, what’syourname, Dobbin. My arms is weaker than seaweed already with all that scrabbling about in the coach.’

  Fairly soon the horse slowed to a steady trot better suited to its solid build; this was even more bone-shaking for Dido but she did not feel in such imminent danger of being tossed off and having to continue her quest on foot.

  How much o’ this nook-shotten wilderness is there? she wondered. It seems to go on for ever – not a house, nor an inn, nor a bakery shop anywheres! Downright wasteful it is, if you ask me.

  After about ten minutes riding she came to a crossroads – or, to be more accurate, a spot where four or five tracks met.

  Now where? Dido wondered, dragging on the traces to bring her steed to a halt. Choose the wrong path and I reckon I’ll be wandering for hours – and never find my way back to the carriage, which is worse; and if I don’t get back with help pretty nippily, poor Cap’n Hughes is liable to die, I shouldn’t wonder, with all this hugger-mugger on top o’ that head wound he’s got.

  She bit her lip in anxiety and indecision, but at that moment a dark shape emerged in complete silence from the trees over to her left, stepped up beside her and whispered,


  ‘I’ll say it’s tarry-diddle,’ Dido replied. ‘Likewise hocus-pocus and howdedo! Who the blazes are you, hoppiting about in the woods like a poltergeist?’

  At this reply, evidently not what the newcomer expected, he put his fingers to his mouth and let out a soft whistle. In an instant seven more figures darted out from the trees; somebody took hold of the horse’s bridle. Dido felt cold metal pressing against her leg, and saw a gleam of light move up and down something that looked extremely like the barrel of a blunderbuss. She also smelt, rather surprisingly, a strong, sweet scent: roses and cloves mixed with ambergris and orange blossom.

  ‘Who are you?’ somebody hissed in her ear.

  ‘Who’m I? I’m Dido Twite,’ she replied with spirit. ‘Our coach tippled over along there acos the coachman was drunk as a wheelbarrow, and there’s a hurt man inside, and I’m a-going for help. So I’ll take it kind if you gentlemen will step back along with me and turn the coach topsides, and tell me where there’s a house or a barn or summat where I can take poor Cap’n Hughes for the night.’

  As she spoke, the word ‘gentlemen’ reminded her of the landlady’s warning: ‘You’ll not find a driver at this time o’ day, love, they’re all too scared o’ the Gentlemen. All except Bosky Dick, that is, and I wouldn’t call him reliable.’

  ‘’Tis a child,’ somebody whispered. ‘Do ee reckon that be a true tale?’

  ‘The nag be Ben Noakes’s bay from the Dolphin, sure enough. I did hear tell as how Bosky Dick was hired to drive a party to Lunnon town.’

  ‘Who else be in the coach, maidy?’

  ‘Cap’n Hughes, I tell you, and he’s hurt bad.’

  ‘What like of cap’n is he?’ someone asked suspiciously. ‘Be he one o’ they Preventive Men, Bush officers?’

  ‘What’s they? No, he’s a Navy cap’n, and he was wounded at sea in a battle – oh, please come and help me with him!’

  ‘Us can’t do that, my duck. Us has to goo t’other way to meet some friends, see? That’s one reason, and another is, we dassn’t, do we might meet some niffy chaps as we don’t fancy.’

  ‘Well, then, can you tell me where I can get some help?’ said Dido impatiently.

  ‘Arr! Ee wants to goo up-along to the Manor House. Owd Lady Tegleaze’ll help ee surelye. She’ll send some o’ the chaps from the estate, sartin sure.’

  ‘Which way to the Manor House, then?’

  One of the men holding the bridle turned Noakes’s bay and led it into the track on Dido’s left.

  ‘Up yonder, my liddle maid. Through the big gates and up on the dene till ee see the lights. They’ll help ee, up at the Manor. But don’t ee goo speaking arter now, about who ee’ve seen here, eh? ‘Twouldn’t be wise, see?’

  ‘How can I?’ said Dido tartly. ‘I haven’t seen you. Who are you anyways?’

  She heard soft chuckles in the darkness. ‘Wouldn’t ee like to know? Well, then, listen: we’re Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp – ’

  ‘Sethera, Wineberry,’ the other voices took it up, ‘Wagtail, Tarry-diddle and Den! Now ee knows all that’s good for ee.’

  ‘And a mighty big help you’ve been, I’m sure,’ Dido muttered – rather ungratefully, since they had at least set her on the right way – as her horse cantered up the loamy ride, under an avenue of tall trees whose branches creaked mournfully in the wind overhead.

  Just before she left them she heard one phrase not meant for her ears:

  ‘Quick yourselves a bit, then, lads, or us’ll be late at the Cuckoo Tree!’

  This reminded her of the coachman’s rhyme:

  ‘If they don’t end in the Cuckoo Tree

  Pickle my brains in eau de vie!’

  She wondered vaguely what it meant, but almost at once anxiety about Captain Hughes drove out all other considerations. Luckily she soon came to a pair of massive stone pillars, evidently the gates the man calling himself Yan had alluded to. When she passed between them the path took a sharp bend to the left round a hummock of ground, and beyond this she could distinguish a cluster of lights not far ahead. Five minutes more, and Noakes’s bay drew up in front of what was plainly a very large mansion, set in a fold of the hillside, with a dark mass of trees behind it and a broad sweep of grass in front. Little else was visible in the dark rainy night. Considering that the time could not yet be much after eight o’clock, Dido was somewhat surprised not to see more windows lit – there seemed to be but half a dozen, and these with wide spaces between them, as if the inhabitants of this great place were so unsociably inclined that they preferred to keep as separate from one another as possible.

  There was a portico with white marble pillars, and some iron staples, roughly driven into these, were evidently meant for tethering horses.

  Dido slid off the bay’s back with relief. Though dear knows how I’ll ever get back on, she thought, seeing no mounting-block. Ignoring a slight palpitation of the heart at the grandeur of this place – the double doors under the portico were so huge that a medium-sized whale could easily have passed between them, given enough water to swim in – she tugged briskly at a brass bell-pull.

  The house had seemed so silent, as if all its inmates were elsewhere or asleep, that she was a little startled when the doors flew open at once; they had been pulled back, she discovered, by a pair of liveried footmen in powdered wigs, and directly in front of her a butler stood bowing.

  ‘Can you help me – ’ Dido began. He interrupted her with raised hand.

  ‘This way, my lady. Please to follow me.’

  Poor old fellow, Dido thought, following. I suppose in a place as grand as this he ain’t allowed to give orders for help on his own, but has to ask the lord or duke or whoever lives here.

  They crossed a wide hall, decorated with a great many pairs of deer’s antlers, ascended several flights of marble stairs – very slowly; the butler was a very aged man – and proceeded along several wide passageways until, it seemed to Dido, they must have reached the very end of the house.

  ‘Coo, it’s a big place, ennit?’ she remarked. ‘Must take a deal o’ sweeping. I’m right sorry for the housemaid.’

  The aged butler, in the act of knocking at a door, turned and surveyed her with some surprise. The sight of her clothes, which he had not observed in the darkness o
f the portico, appeared to surprise him still more.

  ‘I’d take it kind if you’d ask someone to keep an eye on my nag while I’m up here,’ Dido added. ‘If I’d a known we’d have to come sich a perishing way I’d a tied him up a mite tighter.’

  ‘But – did your ladyship not come in a carriage?’

  ‘That’s just what I’d a told you if you’d waited – ’ Dido was beginning impatiently, when an equally impatient voice inside the door shouted,

  ‘How the deuce many times do I have to say “Come in”?’

  Flustered, the butler threw open the door, bowed, stood, aside and announced, as Dido entered,

  ‘The Lady Rowena Palindrome!’

  ‘There! I might a known there was some mux-up,’ Dido said. ‘Bless your socks, I ain’t Lady Rowena Thingummy.’

  ‘Never mind, I daresay you’ll do just as well,’ said the room’s occupant. ‘Come in and sit down. Can you play tiddlywinks? Gusset, there’s a draught; don’t stand there, go out and shut the door behind you.’

  ‘I beg your pardon. Sir Tobit. But if the young lady isn’t who she said she was – ’

  ‘I didn’t say I is, I said I isn’t!’ Dido put in. ‘My stars! I was told I’d get help here, not a lot of argufication – ’

  ‘I had better inform her ladyship,’ the butler muttered worriedly. ‘She won’t be best pleased, I’m afraid. What name did you say, missie?’

  ‘I didn’t say any name, but it’s Dido Twite.’

  ‘Dido Twite. Dido Tite. Twido Dite. Twito Died. Dwighto Tied,’ the butler repeated, and left the room, closing the door.

  ‘Oh, bother! Now Grandmother will come along and there’ll be a lot of fuss. Why did you have to say you weren’t Rowena Palindrome? What does it matter who you are? Sit down, anyway, and amuse me till the old girl comes – it’ll take her a while to get up.’

  ‘I haven’t got a while,’ said Dido crossly. ‘There’s a chap out there, dying maybe, in an overset carriage, and the driver’s knocked silly – not that he was much at the start – and I’d be obliged if you’d kindly send out those two coves as has nothing better to do than open and shut doors to fetch the poor souls here and see arter ’em a bit.’