A CROWNING MERCY
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
The bed be blest that I lie on,
Four angels to my bed,
Four angels round my head,
One to watch, and one to pray,
And two to bear my soul away.
For Michael, Todd and Jill
The boat slammed into a wave. Wind howled in the rigging and brought water stinging down the treacherous deck, driving the shuddering timbers into the next roller.
'Cap'n! You'll take the bloody masts out of her!'
The captain ignored his helmsman.
'You're mad, Cap'n!'
Of course he was mad! He was proud of it, laughing at it, loving it. His crew shook their heads; some crossed themselves, others, Protestants, just prayed. The captain had been a poet once, before all the troubles, and all poets were touched in the head.
He shortened sail an hour later, letting the ship go into irons so that it jerked and rolled on the waves as he walked to the stern rail. He stared through the rain and windspray, stared for a long while at a low, black land. His crew said nothing, though each man knew the sea room they would need to weather the low, dark headland. They watched their captain.
Finally he walked back to the helmsman. His face was quieter now, sadder. 'Weather her now.'
They passed close enough to see the iron basket atop the pole that was the Lizard's beacon. The Lizard. For many this was their last sight of England, for too many it was their last sight of any land before their ships were crushed by the great Atlantic.
This was the captain's farewell. He watched the Lizard till it was hidden in the storm and still he watched as though it might suddenly reappear between the squalls. He was leaving.
He was leaving a child he had never seen.
He was leaving her a fortune she might never see.
He was leaving her, as all parents must leave their children, but this child he had abandoned before birth, and all that wealth he had left her did not assuage his shame. He had abandoned her, as he now abandoned all the lives that he had touched and stained. He was going to a place where he promised himself he could start again, where the sadness he was leaving could be forgotten. He took only one thing of his shame. Beneath his sea-clothes, hung about his neck, was a golden chain.
He had been the enemy of one king and the friend of another. He had been called the handsomest man in Europe and still, despite prison, despite wars, he was impressive.
He took one last, backward look and then England was gone. His daughter was left behind to life.
The Seal of St Matthew
She first met Toby Lazender on a day that seemed a foretaste of heaven. England slumbered under the summer heat. The air was heavy with the scent of wild basil and marjoram, and she sat where purple loosestrife grew at the stream's edge.
She thought she was alone. She looked about her like an animal searching for enemies, nervous because she was about to sin.
She was sure she was alone. She looked left where the path came from the house through the hedge of Top Meadow, but no one was there. She stared at the great ridge across the stream, but nothing moved among the trunks of heavy beeches or in the water meadows beneath them. The land was hers.
Three years before, when she had been seventeen and her mother dead one year, this sin had seemed monstrous beyond imagination. She had feared then that this might be the mysterious sin against the Holy Ghost, a sin so terrible that the Bible could not describe it except to say it could not be forgiven, yet still she had been driven to commit it. Now, three summers later, familiarity had taken away some of her fear, yet she still knew that she sinned.
She took off her bonnet and laid it carefully in the wide, wooden basket in which she would carry back the rushes from the pool. Her father, a wealthy man, insisted that she worked. St Paul, he said, had been a tentmaker and every Christian must have a trade. Since the age of eight she had worked in the dairy but then she had volunteered to fetch the rushes that were needed for floor-coverings and rushlights. There was a reason. Here, by the deep pool of the stream, she could be alone.
She unpinned her hair, placing the pins in the basket where they could not get lost. She looked about her again, but nothing moved in the landscape. She felt as solitary as if this was the sixth day of creation. Her hair, pale as the palest gold, fell about her face.
Above her, she knew, the Recording Angel was turning the massive pages of the Lamb's Book of Life. Her father had told her about the angel and his book when she was six years old, and it had seemed an odd name for a book. Now she knew that the Lamb was Jesus and the Book of Life was truly the Book of Death. She imagined it as vast, with great clasps of brass, thick leather ridges on its spine and pages huge enough to record every sin ever committed by every person on God's earth. The angel was looking for her name, running his finger down the ledger, poised with his quill dipped in the ink.
On the Day of Judgment, her father said, the Book of Life would be brought to God. Every person would go, one by one, to stand before His awful throne as the great voice read out the sins listed in the book. She feared that day. She feared standing on the floor of crystal beneath the emerald and jasper throne, but her fear could not stop her sinning, nor could all her prayers.
A tiny breath of wind stirred the hair about her face, touched silver on the ripples of the stream and then the air was still again. It was hot. The linen collar of her black dress was tight, its bodice sticky, the skirts heavy on her. The air seemed burdened by summer.
She put her hands beneath her skirts and unlaced her stocking tops just above her knees. The excitement was thick in her as she looked about, but she was sure she was alone. Her father was not expected back from the lawyer in Dorchester till early evening, her brother was in the village with the vicar, and none of the servants came to the stream. She pulled her heavy stockings down and placed them in her big leather shoes.
Goodwife Baggerlie, her father's housekeeper, had said she should not dally by the stream because the soldiers might come. They never had.
The war had started the year before in 1642 and it had filled her father with a rare, exalted excitement. He had helped to hang a Roman Catholic priest in the old Roman amphitheatre in Dorchester and this had been a sign from God to Matthew Slythe that the rule of the Saints was at hand. Matthew Slythe, like his household and the village, was a Puritan. He prayed nightly for the King's defeat and the victory of Parliament, yet the war was like some far-off thunderstorm that rumbled beyond the horizon. It had hardly touched Werlatton Hall or the village from which the Hall took its name.
She looked about her. A corncrake flew above the hayfield across the stream, above the poppies, meadowsweet and rue. The stream surged past the pool's opening where the rushes grew tallest. She took off her starched white apron and folded it carefully on top of the basket. Coming through the hedged bank of Top Meadow, she had picked some red campion flowers, and these she put safely at the basket's edge where her clothes could not crush the delicate five-petalled blossoms.
She moved close to the water and was utterly still. She listened to the stream, to the bees working the clover, but there was no other sound in the hot, heavy air. It was the perfect summer's day; a day devoted to the ripening of wheat, barley and rye; to the weighing down of orchard branches; a day of heat hazing the land with sweet smells. She was crouching at the very edge of the pool, where the grass fell away to the gravel beneath the still, lucid water. From here she could see only the rushes and the tops of the great beeches on the far ridge.
A fish jumped upstream and she froze, listening, but there was no other sound. Her instinct told her she was alone, but she listened for a few seconds more, her heart loud, and then with swift hands she tugged at her petticoat and the heavy, black dress, pulled them up over her head, and she was white and naked in the sun.
She moved swiftly, crouching low, and the water closed about her cold and clean. She gasped with the shock and the pleasure of it as she pushed herself into the deep place at the pool's centre, giving herself up to the water, letting it carry her, feeling the joy of fresh cleanness on every part of her. Her eyes were shut and the sun was hot and pink on them — for a few seconds she was in heaven itself. Then she stood on the gravel, knees bent so that only her head was above the water, and opened her eyes to look for enemies. This pleasure of swimming in a summer stream was a pleasure she must steal, for she knew it to be a sin.
She had found she could swim, an awkward paddling stroke that could take her across the pool to where the stream's swift current tugged at her, turned her, and drove her back to the pool's safety. This was her sin, her pleasure, and her shame. The quill scratched in the great book of heaven.
Three years ago this had been something indescribably wicked, a childish dare against God. It was still that, but there was more. She could think of nothing, nothing at least that bore thinking about, that would enrage her father more than her nakedness. This was her gesture of anger against Matthew Slythe, yet she knew it to be futile for he would defeat her.
She was twenty, just three months from her twenty-first birthday, and she knew that her father's thoughts had at last turned to her future. She saw him watching her with a brooding mixture of anger and distaste. These days of slipping like a sleek, pale otter into the pool must come to an end. She had stayed unmarried far too long, three or four years too long, and now Matthew Slythe was finally thinking of her future. She feared her father. She tried to love him, but he made it hard.
She stood now in the shallow part of the pool and the water streamed from her, making her hair cold against her back. She brushed water from her breasts, her slim waist, and she felt the touch of the sun on her skin. She stretched her arms up and then her body, feeling the joy of freedom, the warmth on her skin, the sleekness of water around her legs. A fish jumped.
It jumped again, then a third time, and she knew it was no fish. It was too regular. Panic swept her. She waded to the pool's edge, scrambled desperately on to the bank and fumbled with her petticoat and dress. She pulled them over her hair and down, forcing the heavy, stiff material about her hips and legs. Panic was coursing through her.
The splashing came again, closer now, but she was decent, even if dishevelled. She removed the wet hair from within her collar, sat down and picked up her stockings.
'Dryad, hamadryad, or nymph?' An easy voice, full of hidden laughter, came from the stream.
She said nothing. She was shivering in fear, her wet hair obscuring her view.
He smiled at her. 'You have to be a nymph, the spirit of this stream.'
She jerked her hair away from her eyes to see a smiling young man, his face framed with unruly dark red curls. He was standing in the stream, but curiously bent forward so that his hands and forearms were beneath the water. His white shirt was unbuttoned, tucked into black breeches that were soaking. Black and white, the colours of a Puritan's sober dress, but she did not believe the young man to be a Puritan. Perhaps it was the fineness of the linen shirt, or the hint of black satin where the breeches were slashed, or perhaps it was his face. She decided it was his face. It was a strong-boned, good face, full of laughter and happiness. She should have been frightened, yet instead she felt her spirits rise at the sight of the stooping, wet man. She disguised her interest, putting defiance into her voice as she challenged the trespasser. 'What are you doing here?'
'Stealing Slythe's fish. What are you doing?'
There had been something so cheerful in his admission of poaching that she smiled. She liked his face. It was crossed by the odd reflections of the sunlight from rippling water. She saw that he had no rod or net. 'You're not fishing.'
'You're calling me a liar!' He grinned at her. 'We Lazenders don't lie. At least, not much.'
A Lazender! That made everything more fitting somehow for this private place where she defied her father. Sir George Lazender was the Member of Parliament for the northern part of the county, a great landowner, a knight, and a man of whom her father had a low opinion. Sir George Lazender supported Parliament in its war against the King, but Matthew Slythe believed that support to be lukewarm. Sir George, Matthew Slythe believed, was a man too cautious in the great fight. There was worse. Sir George, it was rumoured, would keep the bishops in a Protestant church, would keep the Book of Common Prayer for its services, and Matthew Slythe believed both to be the works of the Papist devil.
The young, red-headed man bowed clumsily in the stream. 'Toby Lazender, nymph. Heir to Lazen Castle and stealer of fish.'
'You're not stealing fish!' She was hugging her knees.
'I am!' He proved it by slinging a bag from his back and showing her a half dozen trout. Yet he had no fishing gear with him.
She smiled. 'How?'
He told her. He waded to the bank, lay on the grass a few feet from her, and described how to catch fish with bare hands. It was, he said, a slow business. First he immersed his hands and forearms in the water and left them there until they had chilled to the temperature of the stream. Then, very slowly, he walked upstream still keeping his hands under the water. He explained that trout were lazy fish, lying in the thick weed and swimming only enough to hold their position against the water's flow. He said she could creep into the weeds and, moving slow as thistledown, feel with spread fingers for the presence of a fish. He grinned at her. 'You don't feel the fish, at least not at first. You just feel the pressure of it.'
He nodded. 'I don't know. It's just there. The water's thicker.'
'You stroke.' He showed her how he worked his fingers back and forth, closing on the strange pressure until he could feel the fish's belly. Because his fingers were as cold as the water, and because they moved with infinite slowness the fish suspected nothing. He told her how to stroke the fish, always stroking backwards and always gently, until the hands knew precisely how the trout lay in the water. Then he pounced. The fish was jerked out of the weed, faster than it could twist away, and he would send it spinning to the bank. 'Then you hit its head.' He grinned.
She laughed. 'Truly?'
He nodded. 'On my honour. Were you swimming?'
She shook her head and lied. 'No.'
His legs were bare, his wet breeches rolled up. He smiled. 'I'll look the other way while you finish dressing.'
She felt a pang of fear. 'You shouldn't be here!'
'Don't tell anyone and I won't.'
She looked about her, but could see no one watching. She put on stockings and shoes, her apron, and laced up her dress.
Toby made her laugh. She felt no fear of him. She had never met anyone with whom it was so easy to talk. Her father's absence meant time was not pressing on her and they talked all afternoon. Toby lay on his stomach as he told her of his unhappiness with the war and of his wish to fight for the King rather than his father's side. She felt a chill go through her when he proclaimed his loyalty for the enemy. He smiled at her, teasing her gently, but asking an unstated question at the same time. 'You wouldn't support the King, would you?'
She looked at him. Her heart was beating loud. She smiled back shyly. 'I might.'
For you, she was saying, I might even change the loyalty in which I was reared.
She was a Puritan girl, protected from the world, and she had never been allowed more than four miles from home. She had been raised in the harsh morality of her father's angry religion, and though he had insisted that she learn to read, it had been only so she could search the scriptures for salvation. She was ignorant, kept deliberately so, for the Puritans feared the knowledge of the world and its seducing power, yet not even Matthew Slythe could rein in his daughter's imagination. He could pray for her, he could beat her, he could punish her, but he could not, though he had tried, stop her dreaming dreams.
She would say later that this was love at first sight.
It was, too, if love was a sudden, overwhelming urge to know Toby Lazender better, to spend time with this young man who made her laugh and feel special. She had been walled in all her life, and the result had been that she dreamed of the wild world outside, seeing it as a place of laughter and happiness, and now, suddenly, this emissary from beyond the wall had broken in and found her. He brought happiness and she fell in love with him there and then, beside the stream, making him the object of all the dreams that were to come.
He saw a girl more beautiful than any he had seen before. Her skin was pale and clear, her eyes blue, her nose straight over a wide mouth. When her hair dried it fell like spun gold. He sensed a strength in her that was like fine steel, yet when he asked if he could come again she shook her head. 'My father won't allow it.'
'Do I need his permission?'
She smiled. 'You take his fish.'
He looked at her in astonishment. 'You're Slythe's daughter?'
Toby laughed. 'Dear God! Your mother must have been an angel!'
She laughed. Martha Slythe had been fat, vengeful and bitter. 'No.'
'What's your name?'
She looked at him, sadness in her. She hated her name and she did not want him to know it. She thought he would think less of her because of her name's ugliness, and as she thought that, so the realisation struck her that she would never be allowed to meet him again. Her name could never be Toby's business.
He persisted. 'Tell me?'
She shrugged. 'It doesn't matter.'
'But it does!' he exclaimed. 'More than the sky, the stars, the heavens, more than my dinner tonight! Tell me.'
She laughed at his ridiculous ebullience. 'You don't want to know my name.'
'I do. Otherwise I shall just have to invent a name for you.'
She smiled as she stared over the stream. She was embarrassed. Perhaps the name he would invent would be worse than her real name. She could not look at him as she spoke it aloud. 'My name's Dorcas.'
She expected him to laugh, but there was silence, so she turned a defiant stare on him. 'Dorcas Slythe.'
He shook his head slowly, looking serious. 'I think we must find you a new name.'
She had known he would hate her name.
Toby smiled, then leaned over to her rush basket. He picked up one of the pink-red campion flowers and slowly twirled the blossom in front of his eyes. He stared at it. 'I shall call you Campion.'
She liked it immediately, feeling as if all her life she had waited for this moment when someone would tell her who she was. Campion. She said the name over and over in her mind, Campion, and she savoured it, liking it, and knowing it was a hopeless dream. 'My name is Dorcas Slythe.'
He shook his head, slowly and deliberately. 'You're Campion. Now and forever.' He drew the flower towards his face, staring at her over the petals, then kissed it. He held it towards her. 'Who are you?'
She reached for the flower. Her heart was beating as it did before she swam. Her fingers trembled as she took the stalk, shaking the petals, and her voice was low. 'Campion.'
It seemed to her, that moment, as if nothing existed in all creation except herself, Toby, and the fragile, beautiful flower.
He looked at her, his own voice low. 'I shall be here tomorrow afternoon.'
The hopelessness rushed in to spoil the moment. 'I won't,' she said. 'I can't.' The rushes were cut only once a week, and she had no other excuse for visiting the stream. The thought reminded her that she was late, that she must hurry.
Toby still watched her. 'When will you be here?'
Toby sighed. 'I'll be in London.'
He nodded. 'My father's sending me to learn some law. Not much, he says, just enough to know how to avoid all lawyers.' He looked up at the sky, gauging the time. 'I'd rather be fighting.' He was twenty-four and men much younger were fighting.
He sat up. 'It will be a dull place if the Puritans take over.'
She nodded. She knew. The Puritans already controlled her life. She pinned her hair up. 'I'll be in church on Sunday.'
He looked at her. 'I'll pretend I'm a Puritan.' He made a grim, glum face and she laughed.
He had to go. He had come to the next village to buy a horse and the horse was being shod for him. It was a long journey back to Lazen Castle, but he would do it swiftly with a dream in his head of a girl he had met by a stream.
'Till Sunday, Campion.'
She nodded. Even talking to him was a sin, or so her father would say, but she wanted to see him again. She was in love, a hopeless, romantic, helpless love because there was nothing she could do about it. She was her father's daughter, at his command, and she was Dorcas Slythe.
Yet she yearned, now, to be Campion.
Toby cut the rushes for her, making it all a game, and then he left. She watched him walk north along the stream and she wished she was going with him. She wished she was anywhere but at Werlatton.
She carried the rushes home, hiding the campion flowers in her apron while, unknown to her, her brother, Ebenezer, who had watched all afternoon from the shadows under the great beeches, limped to the Dorchester road and waited for their father.
She was Dorcas and she wanted to be Campion.
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