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The Cat's Eye Shell, Page 2

Kate Forsyth

  ‘Milly!’ Luka shouted, looking back. ‘Run!’

  She fought to steady her breath, and climbed over the flint wall into the meadow. The horses lifted their heads and gazed at her. With her fingers clasping the charm tightly, she walked towards them, her left hand held out placatingly. The horses’ ears pricked forward.

  ‘Hey there, my beauties,’ she whispered. ‘Hey there.’

  They did not wheel from her and run. Trying not to hurry, she walked closer, and closer, and at last reached out her hand and grasped a grey mare’s halter. ‘Whoa there,’ she whispered as the mare baulked, shaking her head. Emilia ran one hand over the smooth, dappled back, then led the mare towards the water trough, using its stone side as a mounting block so she could get on the horse’s back slowly and gently. The mare sidled, then settled as she felt Emilia’s weight on her back.

  ‘Come on then, my beauties,’ she cried, and dug her heels into the horse’s side. The mare broke into a smooth canter, taking Emilia rapidly across the meadow, and all the other horses galloped behind. The wall came at her fast. She leant forward, clicked her tongue, and tapped her heels. The mare rose and leapt the wall smoothly, and the rest of the herd followed.

  At the sound of the galloping hooves, the men swung round in terror, the duke drawing his sword. Their utter surprise and joy when they recognised Emilia was almost ludicrous.

  ‘Get up, get up,’ Emilia urged, bringing the horses to a dancing halt beside them.

  ‘But they have no saddle, no bridle,’ the duke cried, even as he grasped a halter and looked about for something to use as a mounting block. Luka was already astride one of the horses, Zizi clinging to the chestnut mane.

  ‘You’d look a gift horse in the mouth because it has no saddle?’ Lord Harry cried with a broad grin. ‘What would you rather have, saddle sores or a bullet hole in your back?’

  As he spoke, he jumped up on the wall and leapt on another horse’s back. Nat bent and cupped his hands together for the duke to put his boot into, and in a trice the duke was up and mounted too. Nat then helped Tom up onto the back of a small bay mare, and then heaved the priest up onto the back of a portly roan mare. The priest almost fell off the far side.

  ‘I can’t ride,’ he cried.

  ‘Just hold on,’ Emilia called, already urging her horse forward. ‘They’ll run together as a herd, don’t you worry.’

  The priest cast his eyes upward, made a hasty genuflection, and gripped the roan mare’s mane as she trotted after the other horses. Nat scrambled up onto the last horse, heaving the duke’s bag up before him, and kicked the animal into a canter.

  Behind them they heard the loud bang of pistols, and the enraged shouts of the thwarted soldiers, racing after them on foot. Rollo barked loudly, and bounded on ahead.

  Within moments they were safe over the hill and galloping hard towards the rising sun. To the north, the Downs rolled, smooth and bare, and to the south was the sea, brightening to blue as the sun lifted free of the horizon. A fresh, cold wind lifted Emilia’s black curls. She hullabalooed loudly, in pure joy, and Lord Harry shouted back, turning a laughing face her way.

  ‘You imp!’ he cried. ‘What Providence, finding a herd of horses just when we needed them! And not just any horses! Tame ones. Well-trained ones! Fast ones!’

  ‘The Lord is with us!’ the duke cried, and leant forward over his horse’s neck, urging it on even more swiftly.

  The priest only moaned, bouncing around like a sack of potatoes.

  Down the deep laneways the horses cantered, raising plumes of dust with their hooves. The countryside streamed past, lit with sunlight. Emilia was in the lead, her fingers clenched in her horse’s mane, guiding the mare with nothing but the pressure of her thighs and the occasional touch of her heel. The horses began to labour, and they slowed down to a trot.

  ‘Which way to Arundel?’ the duke called to the priest at a crossways.

  Father Plummer managed to raise a hand to wave them forward, and almost fell off his horse.

  ‘My lord, this is madness,’ Nat said in an undertone, riding beside the duke. ‘The priest is leading you away from the sea! Why do you trust him? We should be finding a port, not galloping away from the sea as fast as we can.’

  ‘Father Plummer has kept us safe so far,’ the duke muttered back.

  Nat snorted. ‘Safe! We’ve had Cromwell’s spies on our heels every step of the way.’

  ‘You think Father Plummer wishes to be caught? It may have been four years since the last Catholic priest was hung at Tyburn, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a capital offence to be a priest.’

  Nat glanced back at Father Plummer, who was barely managing to keep his seat, and then gazed further back along the road. A long plume of dust some miles back showed the soldiers were in hot pursuit. Nat shook his head, and bent lower over his horse’s neck, urging it on.

  They burst out of the long green tunnel of trees and Emilia suddenly exclaimed in wonder and astonishment.

  Rising high on a hill above a medieval walled town was a great grey ruin of a castle. It dominated the horizon, dark against the soft blue of the sky.

  ‘Up … there,’ panted the priest, still clinging desperately to his horse’s mane, his robe flapping up to show his plump white legs bouncing up and down.

  ‘Are you sure?’ the duke cried. ‘There’s nothing there, it’s a complete and utter ruin. Cromwell’s man Waller had it razed to the ground.’

  The priest nodded vehemently.

  ‘Onwards then,’ the duke cried, and they took the road towards the ruin.

  To their right were green fields where sheep grazed. A shepherd shaded his eyes with his hand as he watched them gallop by, and a little further up the road a girl herding along a flock of geese drove them off the road, then stood among her honking, flapping, hissing charges, her eyes wide with astonishment at the sight of the riders bent over the necks of the sweating, labouring horses.

  ‘The soldiers will have no trouble tracking us down,’ the duke said grimly. ‘I hope you have a plan, Father Plummer.’

  The priest was too busy coughing and choking on the dust to answer.

  The road led through a formal gatehouse, gaping open to the sky, and up the smooth green slope of the ancient motte.

  As his horse began to struggle up the hill, Father Plummer lurched forward and banged his chin on his horse’s mane. For a moment he wobbled alarmingly from side to side, his arms flapping, then he pitched sideways, landing with a heavy thump on the road.

  ‘Are you all right, Father Plummer?’ Emilia cried, swinging down beside him and helping him to his feet.

  ‘Of course, I’m fine,’ he answered, shaking out his long robes, his cheeks even ruddier than usual. ‘I just decided it would be kinder not to make this poor beast carry my bulk up this steep hill. I simply … aah … miscalculated how far it was to the ground.’

  The duke swung down to the ground. ‘We’ll all walk,’ he said kindly. ‘Our horses are quite blown, it’d be cruel to gallop them up this hill.’

  ‘My thoughts exactly,’ the priest said, and tried without success to drag his horse’s head up from the grass.

  ‘Leave them to crop,’ the duke said. ‘It’s not as if the soldiers have not guessed by now where we’re headed.’

  The castle was guarded by an immense barbican, its grey stones scorched and blackened. Within was a long hall, once beautifully panelled, but now so damaged by fire and water the ornate panels could hardly be seen. The wall to the back had been completely blown down, and they could see the sunlight bright on tall grasses and weeds, and another high stone wall.

  ‘What a shame,’ the duke said, looking about him. ‘This was once a great castle, one of the greatest in all England.’

  ‘It’s rather grim now,’ Tom said, bending over and trying to catch his breath.

  ‘Grim, grey and gruesome,’ Emilia replied, shivering a little as the cold shadow of the ruin fell upon her. She tilted back her head, sta
ring up at the walls towering over her. To the south, most of the walls had collapsed into piles of rubble, but the castle was more intact to the west and north. A broken staircase climbed one wall, leading towards the tower heights.

  ‘Let’s climb up,’ Luka said. ‘We’d have a great view from the top.’

  ‘Where are you going?’ the duke called as they began to clamber up the steps.

  ‘Looking out for the soldiers,’ Luka called back.

  The duke nodded and raised his hand, and Lord Harry called, ‘Be careful!’

  Quickly and easily the two children scrambled up the ruined staircase. After a moment, Tom followed them, being careful to keep away from the crumbling edges. Emilia turned, smiling, and waited for him. Luka scowled and went on ahead, Zizi leaping before him.

  ‘They did a good job of wrecking the castle,’ Tom said, looking about him. ‘They must have blown it up with gunpowder!’

  ‘Why did they wreck it?’ Emilia asked.

  ‘The earls of Arundel are Catholics as well as Royalists,’ Tom said. ‘Besides, look at its position!’

  They reached the top of the tower and stared around them. They could see for miles. To the west floated the Isle of Wight like a low blue cloud, with the tall, graceful spire of the cathedral at Chichester striking up in the middle distance. Before them lay the river valley of the Arun, and the thick beech woods of the park, and behind them the curve and dip and roll of the Downs, bare-crested and green. Eastwards they could see more rolling hills, rising to a round green hump and then falling down towards the sea.

  ‘How beautiful,’ Emilia said.

  ‘Look!’ Luka called. ‘Can you see the dust rising? Looks like a big troop, riding hard.’

  They stared at the clouds of dust rising from the road.

  ‘They’re close,’ Emilia said.

  ‘We must inform my lord duke,’ Tom said, and began to make his cautious way back down the staircase, pressing close to the wall.

  Luka rolled his eyes in exasperation. ‘By the time you get down, the soldiers will be here,’ he said. ‘Get out of my way!’

  Pushing past Tom roughly, he bounded down the steps at top speed, sending loose stones rolling and crashing down to the flagstone floor a hundred feet below. Zizi leapt up onto Tom’s shoulder and gave his long curls a good hard yank, then scampered after Luka, shrieking with monkey laughter.

  Tom scowled.

  Emilia scrambled after them, giving Tom an apologetic look as she passed him. He threw her a furious, resentful glance, but did not try to mimic the gypsy children’s easy agility. It was a long way down.

  ‘So, what are we doing here?’ Lord Harry was demanding, pacing up and down. ‘Oddsblood, are we meant to defend the castle with nothing but our pistols?’

  ‘No, my lord,’ the priest said quietly. ‘Indeed, I would not be so foolish. We had to find some kind of hiding place, though, with the Portsmouth garrison hot on our heels.’

  ‘But every apple-john for miles around would have seen us galloping by,’ Lord Harry said furiously. ‘The blasted Roundheads will have no trouble tracking us down at all! They’ll be here any moment!’

  ‘I know,’ the priest replied. ‘The thing is, my lord, there is a secret passage here at Arundel that runs under the Downs.’

  ‘A secret passage!’

  The priest turned towards the duke. ‘Aye, my lord. This is a very old castle, as you know, and it has seen many years of war and strife. It is a great, noble family that lived here, and one that has suffered terribly for its loyalty to Rome. They’ve lost their heads on the block, been locked up in the Tower and poisoned, they’ve had their castle knocked down …’

  ‘What has all this to do with secret passages?’ Lord Harry demanded.

  Father Plummer looked grave. ‘For a family to remain faithful to the one true religion in such dreadful times, they must always keep one step ahead of their enemies. Many, many years ago a tunnel was dug, slowly and with great secrecy, so that the folk of the castle could escape if need be. Only a few people know about the passage. I am one of them.’

  ‘Why you?’ Lord Harry asked sceptically.

  ‘I’ve spent a great deal of my time in the last few years in one priest-hole or another,’ Father Plummer answered simply. ‘When Arundel Castle was besieged by General Sir William Waller, I was here. They knew I’d die horribly if I was caught, and so I was smuggled out of the castle, through this secret passage I’m telling you about. Only a few of us got out. There were more than a thousand prisoners taken, but most were freed in time, after they’d paid their fines.’

  ‘So you remember where this passage starts?’ the duke asked eagerly, looking about him.

  The priest nodded, then shrugged. ‘I think so. It was dark, and all has changed so much. It was a most beautiful place, Arundel Castle. It saddens me greatly to see it all laid to waste.’

  ‘The soldiers are hot on our heels, man! Do you think you could stop blathering about times past and find this passage for us?’ Lord Harry said.

  Father Plummer looked grave, but he nodded and made his way hesitantly out through the back of the hall and into the quadrangle beyond. The others all followed, looking about them with interest.

  ‘But it’s so huge!’ Luka whispered. ‘It’ll take hours to walk all over it. We haven’t a hope of finding the entrance to the secret passage if Father Plummer does not remember where it is.’

  Both the Duke of Ormonde and Lord Harry were obviously worried too. The duke said nothing, but he looked pale and troubled, and kept looking back over his shoulder. Lord Harry cast suspicious glances at Father Plummer, and kept muttering under his breath about popish plots, and vile trickery, and foul Jesuits, while Tom lagged behind, looking unhappy.

  Gypsies were often criticised for being irreligious, in an age when one’s religion meant everything, but even so Luka and Emilia found it difficult being in the company of a priest. Ever since the death of Bloody Queen Mary, priests and popery had been the devils most feared by the common people. Constant plots by the Catholics to overthrow or kill Good Queen Bess had caused a deep undercurrent of anxiety among those who could remember the last time a Catholic had ruled the land, when the smoke from the constant burning alive of Protestants had hung thick in the air. No one wanted to return to those times, and much of the hatred of Charles I had been caused by the fear that he was too Catholic in his tastes. Although Luka and Emilia had been raised with a certain scepticism towards the Church, as they had been towards all institutions of power, the fear and hatred of Catholics ran so deep that they too found it hard not to suspect the harmless-looking priest of some dark, hidden purpose.

  Tom obviously felt the same, yet he made an effort to hide his feelings, out of politeness. Lord Harry, however, seemed to view the priest with such loathing that he could barely look at him. He muttered to Luka, ‘Damned pope-lover! Give them a finger and they’ll always take a hand. My lord duke is a fool to trust him.’

  Luka could only hope Lord Harry was wrong.

  Father Plummer led them up a steep, crumbling flight of steps into the most ancient part of the castle, a tall, round keep with walls that were ten feet thick. It was not so badly damaged by cannon fire, though neglect and the weather had worn away the stones, and weeds sprouted everywhere. Owls roosted in the rafters, and the floor was white with their droppings. Everywhere lay the little regurgitated pellets they coughed up, composed of the hair and skin and bones of the mice and birds they devoured, and the air was thick with the smell. Tom coughed, and covered his mouth and nose with his handkerchief, while Rollo went bounding forward, ears pricked forward, nostrils quivering with the joy of such rich odours. Zizi wrinkled her nose and leapt up to Luka’s shoulder, dusting clean her paws. Following along behind, holding up her damp skirts in one hand, Emilia could only wish she wore shoes.

  Father Plummer bent and picked up an owl feather and tucked it away in his satchel. ‘Could come in useful,’ he said with a quick smile at Emilia, who s
tared at him in surprise.

  From the windows, they had a glorious view down to the sea, and a not-so-glorious view of a troop of soldiers riding hard up the hill towards the castle. They had to find a hiding place fast.

  ‘Any ideas, Father Plummer?’ the duke asked, his hand gripping his sword hilt.

  ‘Somewhere round here,’ the priest muttered, and hurried on. They all followed after him, running down some slippery dark stairs and down into the bowels of the keep.

  They came to a shadowy, low-ceilinged room, lit only by narrow slits in the walls. In the centre of the room was a well, covered with a half-rotten wooden cover, with an iron winch and handle over it.

  At the sight of it, Father Plummer puffed out his breath in relief. ‘This is it,’ he cried. He leant over and dragged away the wooden cover, revealing a deep, black hole. A gust of frigid, stale-smelling air puffed out. ‘This is our way out!’

  Down the Well

  They all stared down the well in dismay.

  ‘It goes down into the chalk on which the hill is built,’ Father Plummer said. ‘They carved a passage through under the castle, heading north. Nat, have you any more rope? We need rope.’

  Nat flung down the heavy bag he carried over his shoulder and swiftly rummaged through, withdrawing a thick coil of rope.

  ‘Last time, they lowered us down on a bucket, but there’s no bucket here now,’ Father Plummer said rapidly. ‘I suppose we all must just slide down the rope.’

  Nat quickly and efficiently secured the end of the rope about the iron winch that stood over the dark hole.

  ‘One problem I can see,’ Lord Harry said in a strained voice. ‘As soon as the soldiers search the keep, they’ll find the well with its cover off and our rope hanging down. They’ll simply follow us down.’

  Everyone caught their breath in alarm.

  ‘No problem,’ Luka said nonchalantly. ‘I’ll come last. I don’t need a rope. I’ll untie it and drop it down to you, then just climb down.’

  There were exclamations of horror and dismay all round.