‘Fuck off then, Tom,’ she had shouted, in the middle of the inn. ‘Fuck off to Yorkshire, and don’t blame me if you die in some horrific way, stabbed and burned and throttled and
I shall not grieve for you, not for one second. I will jump on your grave and sing
I told you so, Thomas Hawkins, you fucking idiot
. You may count upon it.’
‘Mrs Hawkins was called home on urgent business.’
‘Sorry to hear that, sir. You’re travelling alone, then?’
Not quite. A dark figure slipped out from behind a rag-filled wagon. He was dressed in an ancient pair of mud-brown woollen breeches and a black coat, cuffs covering his knuckles.
black coat, in fact, which was several inches too big for him. His black curls were tied in a ribbon beneath a battered three-cornered hat.
‘And who’s this?’ Pugh asked, bending towards Sam as if he were a child. I had made the same mistake, the first time I’d met him. A boy of St Giles, raised in the shadows, smaller than he should be.
Sam’s eyes – black and fathomless – fixed upon mine.
‘This is Master Samuel Fleet.’ Son of a gang captain, nephew of an assassin. And at fourteen years of age, on his way to becoming more deadly than either. ‘I’m his guardian.’
Well. Someone had to keep a watch on him.
The town square was packed with stalls for the Thursday market, the air laced with the warm tang of wool and sheepskin. Traders and townsfolk recognised our coach and hurried to clear the way for us: Mr Aislabie’s standing was far greater here in his own county. He had been mayor of Ripon, many years ago, and his son was now the town’s representative in parliament. Such things command a degree of respect, if not love.
We were soon through the town and riding along a country lane banked with thick hedgerows. Our carriage was a fine, open chaise, pulled by four of the best horses I had ever seen. The sun gleamed upon their bay coats as they raced towards Mr Aislabie’s estate of Studley Royal, along a road they knew well and seemed to enjoy. Pugh gave us their names, and the names of their forefathers, and would have continued on if I had not distracted him with a query about the weather. He was the head groom at Studley, and most likely knew the horses’ ancestry better than his own. He was a garrulous fellow, and I learned swiftly that a response was neither required nor particularly welcome. He spoke in the way some men whistle, and it was best to leave him to it.
I settled back, enjoying the sunshine. Insects buzzed in the grass, sparrows pecked at the ground with short beaks, a blackbird sang out from the branches above our heads. All about us, left, right and onwards, the fields rose and dipped, seamed with dry-stone walls and hedges. A pleasant, spring green world, spreading out to the horizon.
Sam perched upon the opposite bench, watching it all with a mistrustful eye, as if the land might rise up and swallow him. I had grown up on the Suffolk coast with its quiet villages and endless skies. Sam was born and raised in London, happy in the stink and bustle of its worst slums. He knew every thieves’ alley, every poisonous gin shop, every abandoned cellar transformed into a makeshift brothel. He was street vermin, street filth, and proud of it.
A fat bumblebee buzzed between us. Sam froze – a boy who would face down a blade without blinking. ‘It won’t harm you,’ I murmured, so as not to embarrass him in front of Pugh. Sam lifted one shoulder, as if he couldn’t care less if it stung him repeatedly in the face, but he looked relieved when it drifted on its way.
Each morning of our journey north, Sam had clambered ahead of me into the carriage and taken the bench closest to the horses, facing backwards. This suited us both well enough: if we had sat side by side we would have rolled into one another at every sharp corner. But it was such a deliberate action that I had begun to suspect a deeper motive; Sam did not do such things upon a whim.
On the day of my hanging, I had been bound in chains and paraded through the streets on an open cart. Condemned prisoners ride backwards to the gallows. The journey had been terrifying: the crowds lining the streets, the mud flung at the cart, the hatred pulsing through the air. My own fear, sharp and solid as a stone in my throat. We must all travel blind to our deaths, but to feel its slow, creeping approach with every turn of the wheel is a horror beyond imagining.
The simple roll and pitch of a carriage could return me to that morning in a heartbeat. Somehow, Sam understood this and took the seat facing backwards in order to spare me. How he had come to guess at such a deep-buried feeling I couldn’t say – and there would be no profit in asking. I was lucky to squeeze ten words out of the boy in fifty miles. But we had travelled together four days in succession with no other company, facing one another as the carriage rumbled along. Perhaps he had simply read the truth in my eyes. It was an unsettling thought, that he had been watching me so carefully.
You can’t trust him, Tom.
Kitty’s voice again in my head.
You know what he is.
We had travelled no more than a quarter hour when I saw a boundary wall ahead, ten feet high and stretching off into the distance. The horses pulled harder with no need for the whip, eager to be home. ‘Is this Mr Aislabie’s estate?’
Pugh twisted in his seat. ‘One corner of it. It’s
, sir.’ I’d pronounced it
the French way
I hunched lower in my coat. It was a bright morning, but there was a sharp wind blowing in from the east. Sam was sitting on his hands to keep them warm. Feeble city folk, the pair of us.
‘Will we pass Fountains Abbey?’ Fellow guests at the Oak had mentioned the ancient monastery at supper. According to the – somewhat biased – landlord, they were the largest and the most splendid ruins in the country. And haunted, naturally.
‘No, sir,’ Pugh replied, and fell silent for once.
We rode through the tiny village of Studley Roger. Sam released his hands and clung to the edge of the carriage, taking in every detail as we passed through the hamlet. The size of the windows, the shape of the chimneys. The doors left open to the fresh air. A couple of muddy lanes. But nothing familiar, not really.
And no tavern
, I noticed, mournfully.
No rowdy coffeehouse, the air clogged with pipe smoke, the latest newspaper laid out upon the table.
‘Second house upon the left. How many geese in the yard?’
Sam blinked. ‘Seven.’
This was a game we had played along the road. At least, I had played it and Sam had humoured me. He’d been raised to remain alert to his surroundings. In the city slums, there were threats and opportunities lurking in every doorway. Information could earn a boy his supper, or save his life. But I suspected Sam had a particular talent for it, something he was born with: a precision of mind far beyond my own or anyone else’s, for that matter.
We arrived at an iron gate, decorated with a coat of arms and flanked by a pair of stone lodges. An old man hurried out from one of them, waving his hat in greeting as he pulled open the gate. We rode through at a brisk pace, on to an oak-lined avenue. Thick branches reached out across the path, forming a tangle of shadows beneath. The sun, filtered through the leaves, cast a soft green light upon our skin.
I smiled at Sam, thinking of the rookery of St Giles, where planks and ladders criss-crossed the rooftops, creating high pathways through the slums. ‘Like home.’
He frowned in disagreement.
‘Mr Aislabie plans to chop all these down,’ Pugh said, waving at the trees. ‘Limes are better for an avenue. They grow straight. Oaks grow gnarly.’ As we crested the hill he slowed the horses. ‘If you’d look behind you, sir.’
I turned to see a magnificent view, the long avenue of oaks leading straight back towards the gate. From here we could see the valley below and then, rising on a twin hill, the town of Ripon. Through some trick of perspective, it appeared as if one could reach out and steal it. The avenue had been laid out so that the cathedral crowned the view precisely.
Pugh was smiling, waiting for a compliment as if he had knitted the entire thing by hand.
‘Wonderful,’ I obliged.
He grinned, and moved the horses on. ‘Best estate in England. Best in Europe when Mr Aislabie’s done with it.’
And how did Mr Aislabie pay for all these improvements, I wondered? Had he not been left
? Perhaps he’d stumbled across a magic lamp.
We turned right on to a gravelled drive already planted with the preferred lime trees. The path grew steep, the horses pulling hard against the harness. As we crested the hill, I craned my neck to catch the first view of the house.
I was expecting grandeur: a majestic heap in the new Palladian style. The views had promised it. The avenue of limes had proclaimed it. But Studley Hall was an indifferent thing, with very little to recommend it. While the front looked out upon a magnificent deer park, the rest of the house was suffocated by dense woodland. The original building, with its great arched porch and tall windows, must have begun its days as a banqueting hall. It looked to be at least three hundred years old and in a poor state of repair. Over time, additional wings had been tacked on to the original frame, with no thought to proportion or symmetry.
It soon became clear why Mr Aislabie had allowed his home to crumble into such a woeful condition. To the left of the house and some thirty yards in front of it, a score of men toiled over a new building. Carts rumbled back and forth, pulled by great workhorses. A large, sweating man stood in the middle of the foundations, swearing loudly at the workers.
Aislabie must be working upon a new home, more in keeping with his vast estate. It was certainly laid out on a grand scale. I frowned at the building works as we passed. Noise, mud, and a ruined view, barely a hundred feet from where we would be sleeping. The foreman caught my frown and scowled in turn, arms folded across his fat belly.
Pugh slowed the horses and the carriage settled to a halt at the front steps. Sam jumped down at once, landing almost soundlessly on the gravel. The house was no more impressive at close quarters. The window sashes needed a fresh coat of paint after a freezing winter, and the roof was in a sorry condition. I searched for something pleasant to say.
Pugh looked at me, then looked at the house, as if we might be seeing two different buildings.
The doors to the great hall swung open and a man of middling age emerged, one shoulder hunched. ‘Good day, sir,’ he called down the steps, clutching the edge of the door for balance. As he shuffled out I saw that his right leg was lost, replaced with a wooden peg. I hurried up to meet him, and only just suppressed a gasp of shock. His face had been ruined by fire. The right side had caught the worst of it, leaving behind a thick web of scars. Old burn marks and further scars spread down his neck, disappearing beneath his cravat. His right eye was blind, the iris a cloudy grey. His right hand too, was badly damaged, twisted in upon itself save for the thumb and forefinger.
I did my best not to stare, but it was impossible. It must have been a terrible accident, to inflict such horrifying injuries. He waited, used to the reaction of strangers. When I was recovered enough to give my name, he dipped his head.
‘Welcome to Studley Hall.’ His voice was damaged, low and rasping. It made him sound villainous, poor fellow.
I followed him into the entrance chamber, an old feasting hall with a patterned ceiling two storeys high above our heads. The latticed windows blocked out the spring sunshine, and the huge stone hearth was unlit. ‘Thank you, Mr . . .’
‘. . . Sneaton. If you would follow me? Mr Aislabie is waiting.’ He was a man of the south, and he pronounced the name differently from Pugh:
. Well really, if the servants couldn’t agree on how to say their master’s name, what hope did I have?
‘Perhaps we might unpack . . .’ I gestured towards the carriage, hoping to visit my quarters first.
A sullen-faced fellow of about five and thirty strode past us to the carriage, dressed in a green velvet coat and immaculate white stockings, his wig heavily powdered. The butler, I supposed. Two younger footmen trailed eagerly in his wake, dressed in the same livery, though not so fine. Within moments the three men were hurrying back through the hall, bags and boxes hoisted on their shoulders. That is to say, the two footmen carried my belongings, while the butler strode behind them, imperious, as if he could hear a fanfare blaring in his head as he walked.
‘West wing, Bagby,’ Sneaton called gruffly to this regal creature. ‘The oak apartments.’ Bagby did not condescend a reply. He strode up the staircase, past a large, faded tapestry, and was gone.
Sam had taken advantage of the bustle to enter the room in his preferred way: unnoticed. He stood with his back to us, staring up at the deer antlers and weapons covering the high stone walls, the swords, muskets and pistols.
Sneaton, spying him for the first time, gave a jolt of surprise. Sam had an unsettling ability to fade into the background, and Sneaton was not the first to be startled by it. ‘Your valet?’ he asked, in a disbelieving tone. Was it the mismatched clothes that caused suspicion? The black tangle of curls, defiantly kept free of any wig? Or did Sneaton sense something deeper than such surface trifles?