1.

These old manor houses were meant to provide protection. Father once made me close my eyes and stand in the great hall of Ryne Hall and imagine how it must have felt. “None of these doors are here; none of the wings have been built yet,” he said, forcing me to shut out the obvious escape routes. Unlike Winston House, Ryne Hall had continued to live and grow, and there were many halls, each the center of a different wing of rooms and corridors. It was difficult then to imagine being isolated in the great hall. At Winston House I didn’t have to imagine so much.

“The sounds of arrows smacking against the windows,” he said to me. I thought they might sound like little clinks, metal arrow bouncing off stone, a little sound that masked a deadly danger.

“Where do you go?” he asked. I looked around. The great hall was filled with statuary and furniture, but I imagined that back then it would have been bare. All I could do was cower in a corner, so he took me there, and together we crouched. I put my back to the wall and tucked my knees up to my chin. He surrounded me with his bulk and lowered his head so his forehead touched the top of my head.

“We’d have to sit like this until the attack subsided,” he explained.

“How long would that take?”

“It depended. It could be a half hour, it could be all day. It depended on how well-supplied the attackers were, and how badly they wanted to get in.”

And we’d just sit there, waiting, trusting in the thick walls. There’d be shouting from outside, he’d said, and probably shouting from inside. Maybe some of the dogs would be inside with us as a last line of defense, and maybe some armed guards by the door. But the family would be here, in the corner, crouched in the darkness.

I imagined flickers of flame through the narrow windows casting ominous shadows on the walls. Perhaps someone could send a torch through the window, scaring the dogs and forcing someone—guards? family?—to put the fire out.

“Did anybody ever get in?” I asked him.

He stood and took my hand, leading me to a spot near the center of the hall. “In 1216, during the Baron’s War, the door was burned down, and three men entered. One man was able to come in through the flames, a giant Scot they say, and he made it to this spot carrying an enormous broadsword.” Excitement overtook him, and he pushed back the chair on the spot and then pulled back the carpet.

The bare stone floor was exposed to light for the first time in decades if not centuries. He passed his hands over the accumulated dust and dirt and fanned it away until he found what he was looking for: faint scratches on the stone. “Here. The Scot cut down two of our of men—one of them lost his head completely, the other was stabbed right through the chest.”

Father mimed the moment. I laughed, sharing his excitement. And then he pointed to the scratches. “Finally we overwhelmed him and he fell to the ground, but even there he fought, slashing at them until finally the mortal blow was struck.” He laid down on the spot. “They kept hitting him until the swords could go clean through. Those are these marks.” I bent down and passed my fingers over the chips in the stone.

“They say the ground was stained for years after that. But time, I suppose, finally washes everything away.”

He loved these stories. The blood, the courage, the senselessness; and especially the history. Each event has a cascading influence on all that follow. Ryne Hall withstood a direct assault and the Edmonstones emerged as one of the leading families of Portsmouth, a position carefully maintained for centuries after.

“And the whole time,” he said as he pointed to the corner, “the family over there, waiting.”

If the Scot had succeeded in throwing off his attackers he would have kept advancing, bloodied sword in hand, towards the women and children in the corner. I imagined myself there again, knees up to my chin, an adult shielding me with his body, hearing the advancing footsteps and not knowing if I was being rescued or being murdered until the final moment. And I shut that thought out, thinking instead of the triumph of the giant brought down on the floor.

I was not yet five years old when he told me that story. “I want my own sword,” I said to him, and he agreed that a lady should know how to protect herself. “The men should protect you, of course,” he said, “but they can’t do that if they’re dead. It’s unfair to leave you at the mercy of their luck and skill.” And so a few days later he gave me a small wooden blade, and I demanded one for Julian, too, which we delivered to him the next time we went to London.

The houses were meant to protect, but what if the danger was inside? The giant Scot had needed to pass through a burning door to enter Ryne Hall. At Winston House—where there were few if any places in which to hide, and which was distressingly far from town and help—we had let our attacker in through the front door, given full access to our house and our lives, and slept contentedly wholly unaware of what our fates had in store.

And we did it twice, actually, for as I entered the hall for supper Lady Falmouth was greeting Bishop Mather and thanking him for joining us.

Children are meant to be seen, and not heard. My father didn’t believe in this, and neither did the Winstons, but the phrase was a common one and the look on Bishop Mather’s face suggested he believed in it. In the week that we had been here the hall had been roughly divided into smaller, cozier sections: the back, nearest the kitchen, remained the dining area, presided over by the terrifying tapestry of the local ghost dog; chairs, tables, and lamps had been brought out from the library to form a sitting area near the library entrance. Lady Falmouth sat with her guest here, another demon dog bearing down on them from above. Miss Annie took on her formal role as lady’s maid and stood nearby, to be invisible until summoned; Mr. Percy, as butler, did the same, though his focus was on Bishop Mather. They hadn’t behaved this way since we left London, and I had forgotten completely that they were, at the end of the day, servants, not family.

Two smaller chairs were placed nearby, either just inside or just outside of the sitting area, depending on your perspective. Julian and I sat captive, unable to speak, look away, get up, or fall asleep. We were dressed in our plainest formal clothes, mine all black save for the pretty blue and white scarf I insisted on tying in my hair.

“You have done wonders reviving the old house,” Bishop Mather offered.

“Thank you,” she replied. “Though I suppose that if we were staying longer I might be moved to replace those tapestries. I find them disconcerting.”

Bishop Mather looked around, as if noticing the dogs for the first time. “Black Shuck,” he said. “A reminder of God’s power. He is important to this town, it would be a shame to see him go.”

God or the dog, I wondered? Probably both.

“There are many who fear Black Shuck,” the bishop continued. “But he is not to a creature of evil. He is a protector of the weak: women—” and his eyes bore down on Lady Falmouth. “Children.” He didn’t exactly look at us but I felt everyone’s attention shift to us anyway. Then, dismissively before sipping from his tea, “The feeble of mind.”

In my heart I felt an anxiety that was not my own. It was a separate feeling, apart from my own emotions but visible to me. I looked at Julian and saw him shift uncomfortably. Could I possibly be feeling his fear now in my own body? Could he feel mine?

“His methods are harsh, and may even appear cruel to some, but he is necessary. I have met Black Shuck on many occasions, and I fear him not at all, because I know he is here for the righteous, and those he kills are damned. That,” he emphasized, “is why the tapestries hang on your wall. Put there by your husband’s forebears.”

Not the witches, presumably.

“Of course,” Lady Falmouth said. “I am not from these parts, and my husband speaks little of his family.”

“Rightly so.” Bishop Mather viewed his own moral authority as absolute, and projected this confidence. I could see why the people at church sat so still for him. I didn’t understand, though, why they couldn’t see him as the monster he was. Beneath his icy civility he was unkind.

A moment passed where there was nothing to say. The bishop was unbothered. Lady Falmouth, I could see, was. Finally she changed the subject. “The children are remarkable musicians, but I regret we were unable to bring instruments with us. Otherwise I would have had them entertain you. You do like music, don’t you?”

Bishop Mather nearly smiled. “It serves its purpose, as do all things before God. If you wish to play,” and a slight change in his voice signaled that he was addressing us now, though he still didn’t look our way, “you must know that in our church we have a fine collection of instruments. Until recently we had a small but talented consort.”

“What happened to them?” Julian asked, and then instantly regretted having spoken out of turn. The bishop’s look was grave, and he made a show of excusing us before answering.

“Our musical instructor has left to study in Hamburg, and many of his students have taken positions in other parishes. The instruments belong to St. Mary’s, however, and remain here, waiting for skilled hands.”

The fact that he wouldn’t look at us made me doubt that I would be the one to revive the instruments.

“Perhaps the children may sing for you,” Lady Falmouth tried, and I felt my heart (and Julian’s?) race. The bishop didn’t answer one way or the other, and I looked around for guidance. Mr. Percy caught my eye and nodded ever so subtly, and I began to stand. Following only a second behind, Julian did the same. We walked to a spot in between the bishop and Lady Falmouth, uncertain of whom to face. Finally I chose to face Mr. Percy.

I didn’t know what to sing and worried that discussing this with Julian would draw another look from Bishop Mather. Mr. Percy caught my eye again and mouthed quietly. I tried to answer him with my eyes, and he nodded his head. I understood, and the kind look on his face gave me confidence. I looked at Julian, who was looking back at me, and began to sing.

“Come ye heavy states of night,

Do my father’s spirit right…”

Julian knew the words. We all did. He joined in quietly at first, taking a note or two to find the right key.

“Mourn, mourn, day is with darkness fled,

What heavn’s then governs earth

O none, but hell in heaven’s stead,

Choke with his mists our mirth.”

Mr. Percy, at least, approved. He continued to nod in encouragement. Julian was more confident now and switched to singing counterpoint. The sound in the hall was quite lovely, in fact, our voices catching the chinks in the wall and echoing down around us.

“Mourn, mourn, look now for no more day

Nor night, but that from hell,

Then all must as they may

In darkness learn to dwell.”

Bishop Mather coughed into his hand. “It is wonderful that children should learn of John Downland. The favorite of our fair Elizabeth, God rest her soul. I trust you have heard the news from Westminster by now.” The conversation excluded us again, and Julian and I sat down.

“What news, my lord?” Lady Falmouth asked him. To this the bishop made a great deal of pretending to be startled.

“Do you mean to tell you have not heard of the Catholic heir?”

“I have, yes. I was only not certain of what you referred to.”

“Come now, Lady Falmouth. ‘The most clever woman in England,’ I believe Mr. Newton said of you.”

“You are familiar with Isaac Newton?” she asked him. Defensively, I noted.

“I attended a lecture at Cambridge. Dangerous work, he does. Reducing the mysteries of God to mere equations.” He said “equations” dismissively. “He draws on your work, does he not?”

“I’m afraid you overestimate me. I draw upon his work, not the other way around. I only supplement.”

Bishop Mather was unimpressed. He motioned to his empty cup of tea, and Mr. Percy discreetly offered him another. “No need, Mr. Percy. I believe one is enough for me. Your work, as you call it. You aim to use natural law to deny the existence of God, do you not?”

Lady Falmouth straightened her back. Miss Annie, whom I understood to be her assistant and accomplice, also bristled at the bishop. “I do no such thing. I merely ask questions and then seek answers.”

“You are of Catholic heritage, are you not, Lady Falmouth?”

“We all are, my lord, yourself included,” she parried.

“I suppose so.” Cut and thrust. Swordplay, with words. “Our island stands alone against the forces of evil. Do you believe this?” Lady Falmouth didn’t answer. “The reign of King James is a test. I and many throughout England are prepared to save us should he try to infect us with his cursed strain of heresy. Surely you have heard the rumors of William of Orange and our own glorious Mary Stuart. Or will you pretend to be ignorant of that, as well?”

“I place little stock in rumor. When and if William and Mary set foot on English soil then I shall concern myself with them.” Their eyes locked like iron blades.

“Mr. Percy,” the bishop said, “perhaps I should like another cup of tea after all.”

“Of course, sir.” He poured, and looked at me as if to reassure me that he was watching out for us as he promised.

“I was a but a child in Cromwell’s time,” he began. “The war raged, Catholic against Protestant. They came to my home, the soldiers—beasts, under a profaned cross. My father was a man of faith and courage. He stood astride the door, and ordered the men to leave his family alone.”

I saw myself again, cowering the corner of the great hall.

“They cut him down before my very eyes, entered into my house and murdered my brother, and then my mother. I was spared only because I escaped, and they were too drunk to give chase. They burned my house, and a dozen more besides, and when they were finished they said it was in the name of their false god.” He paused. “When this war comes, I will deliver justice, and I will do what the Lord God demands of me, and I will strike them down and kill them all.”

“And don’t they have children, too, who will remember your deeds and your crimes?” Lady Falmouth was a steely as he. “And won’t those children tell the same story thirty year on, and come out and kill you, for God? Would that be justice? Would God then be pleased?” The old man accepted her blows with an almost serene calm. “If you are correct,” she continued, “then your God is a madman. Because if He controls everything, and allows generations of warfare over his name, then it is His will that we continuously destroy each other. Is that your justice?”

“No,” the bishop said through a cold smile. “God loves his children, every one.”

“Then why?” she asked.

“There must be justice, and I will have my vengeance.”

“Your hatred blinds you to your own God.”

“My hatred is stronger than any god.” Cut, parry, thrust. “My question for you, Lady Falmouth, is where will you be during the reckoning? Your friend Robert Edmonstone has fled for the continent in the company of rascals—oh yes, I know these things. Even in Bungay we know these things. He has fled, and your husband has sent you here while the two of them plot. Edmonstone, a stain on his family name, a worshipper of the devil; your husband, heir to a long line of wickedness; and you, with your Catholic blood and your naked idolatry. You will take advantage of this revolution to advance your own satanic agenda.”

Mr. Percy at last stepped forward. “Bishop Mather, that is quite enough. I shall not stand by while you address a lady in this way.”

The bishop stood. He had talked himself into a rich vein of anger. “I am not in the company of a lady. You serve the devil, you and your unholy brood. And I shall stop you in the name of our Lord.”

Mr. Percy forcibly interposed himself between them and with the sheer power of his size forced the bishop to back away. Bishop Mather began chanting a prayer but Mr. Percy continued to stride forward boldly, pushing the man back until they had at last reached the door. Mr. Percy’s arm reached out to Bishop Mather and the bishop cringed away, but Mr. Percy reached over him and grabbed the door and opened it. He commanded the bishop to leave in a fierce bellow, and the bishop stepped out.

“You shall be stopped,” Bishop Mather cried out, his voice shrill with anger. “You mark my words!”

Mr. Percy slammed the door shut and the silence left in the hall was palpable.

Jane came from the kitchen, surveying the scene. “Supper is served,” she said meekly, “for whatever that is worth.”

Lady Falmouth stood and straightened her dress. She took a deep breath. “Jane, the bishop shall not be joining us after all, but we will still have supper. Would you mind joining us at the table in his stead?”

“Of course, milady.”

Mr. Percy would also join us. Mr. Percy, who had become our protector, a much better thing to have around than any haunted dog.

2.

After a quiet and unhurried supper we gathered again in the sitting area.

“Perhaps we should leave here,” Miss Annie said quietly.

“And go where?” Lady Falmouth asked.

“Annandale?” And then Julian could be welcomed as the viscount he was, I supposed.

“There’s nothing there anymore,” Lady Falmouth sighed. “There never really was to begin with.”

“To London then?”

“Not until Hector tells us it is safe.”

Miss Annie let out a deep breath and settled back in her chair. “This ridiculous revolution. This ridiculous king.”

Too many things happening at once. I wondered if the invasion fleet had set sail yet, and where there hammer would fall. The Kentish coast, not far from here, was an obvious choice. Perhaps an expedition would sail up the Waveney. It could get as far as Bungay. Perhaps my father would be leading it. Or perhaps he was still running from Tantibus.

Julian excused himself, and I could see Lady Falmouth was hesitant to let him go. He motioned that he was only going to his room and would be back in a moment, and she relented. “Bishop Mather is harmless,” she said to nobody in particular. “He is bully, and a bully is nothing more than a coward. He talks, that is all.”

Julian returned some time later, having used and presumably cleaned his chamber pot. He also came with two items in hand: his sword, and mine.

“What comfort it is to have such protectors,” Miss Annie smiled.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Percy ventured, “the children could entertain us again. I regret that we did not bring your instruments, but perhaps a song.”

Lady Falmouth brightened. “Yes, yes. But please, not Dowland. Something cheerful.”

Julian was quick. “Froggie went a-courtin’, he did ride, uh-huh…” I joined in, a sword and a pistol at my side. I hadn’t sung the song in ages, but the songs you learn first you never forget. The adults laughed as we mimed the verses—asking Uncle Rat, getting married, getting attacked by cats. We diverged at the end. As Julian sang it, Froggie and Miss Mousie got away. My father had taught me that all were eaten.

“Mr. Percy, can you sing one?” I asked him. He blushed and refused, but all were in high spirits and clapped for him. Surrounded entirely by women and children, Mr. Percy, gallant to the end, gave in.

His rich baritone rumbled from the bottom of his chest.

“Greensleeves was all my joy

Greensleeves was my delight

Greensleeves was my heart of gold

And who but Lady Greensleeves.”

That was all he would give us. He laughed and sat, waving us away. We all knew the words, though, and picked up where he left off.

“Mr. Percy,” I said to him, “you sing beautifully!”

“Oh nonsense, child,” he said.

Music can always change my mood. The notes echo in my heart, and as they rise and fall they pull me along. Everyone, I think. As we sang we banished the spirit of Bishop Mather. Even the demon dog seemed to enjoy it.

“One more, Isabelle,” Lady Falmouth insisted sweetly.

I knew what I wanted to sing. I had wanted to perform it for Mr. Percy in London, to thank him for rescuing me, but events had gotten in the way. The situation hadn’t changed much, though, and I still wanted to thank him for rescuing me, even moreso than before.

I didn’t remember the words, but the melody I knew, more or less. I hummed to get myself in key, and then stood in the center. I was singing alone now, Julian sitting with the rest of the audience. Beside him was Lady Falmouth, then Miss Annie and Mr. Percy, and standing behind him Jane. They formed a half-circle in front of me.

How did it go? I’m sure that they thought I was being shy, but I wasn’t. I tried to picture in my mind’s eye the sheet of music Father Mallory had given me in London. The words were just gibberish to me. Still, if I focused, I could come up with something, and so I closed my eyes and did.

“Nu alrest verde ich lebe

Sic min sun ouge sihet.”

Glimmers of lyrics came to me.

“In diz land hat er gesprochen

Einen angelischen tac…”

The rest I sang as a wordless aria.

The feeling of joy and gratitude I felt faded quickly. I felt a burning in my chest as I sang, and a sense of dread that grew. It came from Julian, I realized. My heart was racing in time with his. I opened my eyes and saw Lady Falmouth squeezing his hand hard. Mr. Percy also shifted uncomfortably in his seat; Miss Annie covered her mouth in her hands, and Jane once again wore the look of fear that was her trademark. I had no idea what I’d done.

“Isabelle,” Lady Falmouth stammered, “where did you learn that?”

I stammered. “Father Mallory taught me…”

But then things fell apart. A crashing sound came from the front of the house, and then sound of voices. Strange shadows raced across the walls, and then we heard shouting from outside.

“What on earth?” Mr. Percy said and stood. A large rock smashed through the window nearest the front door, and we heard the shouts more clearly.

“Devils! Idolators! Witch!” They shouted things things far worse than that, curses I had never heard or even imagined. It sounded like hundreds of people.

Lady Falmouth stood and drew me and Julian close to her. Mr. Percy ran to the door and looked out the broken window. He came back in a hurry.

“We must get out of here,” he said. “Through the kitchens, come.” He looked at Jane. “Now is the time.”

“Wait!” Lady Falmouth and Miss Annie pulled away from both Mr. Percy and Jane.

“There’s no time to wait!” he said back.

I could see through the window, just a little but enough. There were maybe five men in front of our house, shouting angrily, but on the path from town there were maybe a hundred more, carrying torches and chanting. They were led by Bishop Mather.

One of the men nearest the house shouted through the window. “Give yourselves up, devils!” It was Chauncey. He knew the house better than anybody.

“Come now!” Mr. Percy commanded.

Lady Falmouth was thinking fast. Something was making her hesitate. A mob was bearing down on us, but escaping seemed worse.

“No,” she said finally.

“Have you gone mad?” Mr. Percy asked her, incredulous. I felt the same. If only I could have told her about that night in London. We were safe with him.

She consulted wordlessly with Miss Annie and then made up her mind. The men outside were trying to break all the glass out of the windows so they could crawl in, but it didn’t seem likely. The windows were too narrow.

“John,” she said. Mr. Percy’s first name, rarely used. “Take the children. Through the back, follow the river. We’ll take the horses. Get back to London.”

“Yes, milady.” He didn’t protest, a loyal servant to the end.

“I’ll need help,” Miss Annie said. Everyone stopped to look at her. Only Lady Falmouth seemed to understand.

“Jane,” she said, “come with us.”

Jane began to say something but Mr. Percy shot her a look and she obeyed. Mr. Percy’s heavy hand fell on my shoulder.

“Come, children, there is no time to waste.”

The three women went into the library, and Mr. Percy took us through the kitchen. It was a dim room made of rough brick, with a low roof and filled with pots and pans. The place was still a mess from all the cooking earlier. For some reason I thought then that we should get a dog to eat the scraps, because Jane was cooking far more than we could possibly eat.

Mr. Percy opened the door carefully and peered out. The mob was loud but they were still in the front of the house. We could see torches lit in the town center as well, but there were no lights in the little port. There would be boats there, though; there always were.

“Follow me,” he said. “Stay low to the ground. Don’t make a sound. We’re heading to the cottage. Stay on this side of me.” He would keep his body between us and the crowd. Julian took my hand and we left. It was a short distance to the cottage but it was across open space—no trees, no buildings, nothing. From a certain angle you couldn’t even see the orchard behind us, and we’d be silhouetted clearly against the sky, which wasn’t yet very dark. At least the moon wasn’t full.

From a distance we heard the howl of a dog, and I glanced back to see another small group of torches, maybe a dozen all told, leaving the town center in the direction of Winston House. Whatever it was that Lady Falmouth and the rest were doing, they needed to hurry.

We reached the cottage at last, and Mr. Percy eased the door open, just enough for us to slip through before letting himself in.

I’d never been inside the cottage. It was very small, with two rooms, one a little sitting room with a table and a chair, the other a little bedroom where Chauncey slept. I could see a crude mattress on the floor in the sitting room; this must be where Mr. Percy was sleeping. His clothes were carefully hung on nails that had been carelessly driven into the wall. More of them were folded neatly in a little pile on the floor.

He looked us up and down. “You will need to change.” He said this to me, not Julian. Julian was dressed formally, but formal clothing for boys is still somewhat practical. Mr. Percy took off Julian’s dinner jacket and vest and what was left was a shirt and a pair of trousers; only the quality and expense of the fabric made it different from his regular play clothes.

I, on the other hand, was in a heavy dress that constricted my movement and was guaranteed to snag on everything I passed. The only good thing about it was that it was dark, so I could blend into the night. Mr. Percy looked out the window. Jane, or perhaps Miss Annie, had done the wash earlier today, and some clothes were still hanging on the line. It was hard to tell in the dark, but at least some of it was play clothes. I could run and escape in one of those smudge-brown smocks.

“Wait here,” Mr. Percy said, and slipped out the door. We watched through the window, hearts racing, as he crouched as low as his size and age would allow and raced across the field. Halfway there he suddenly stopped and stood, motionless, for twenty seconds or more, before proceeding very slowly to the clothesline. He grabbed a few items and then scurried back as quickly as he could.

“This is all I could find,” he said, showing us what he’d brought. One of Jane’s smocks, a pair of Julian’s trousers, and two linen shirts, one Julian’s and one Jane’s.

“Try them on,” he said, gesturing towards Chauncey’s room. I took the clothes and went in, closing the door behind me.

Chauncey’s room was entirely empty except for his bed, which was as small as mine and much harder, and a single desk with a Bible and a candle. His clothes were folded in a pile beside the desk. It was odd, being inside somebody else’s bedroom. A bedroom is a very private space, very personal, seen only by those you love most, and by intruders, which is what I was.

I needed help getting out of my dress by there were no women here. I pulled at the sleeves and the ties in the back but nothing would give until the stitching started to tear. I gave a hard tug and it ripped completely. One part of my mind screamed at how expensive and lovely the dress was and how I’d be in trouble; the other calmly reminded my that under the circumstances I would probably be forgiven. I tore as much as I needed to slip out of it.

Jane was a tiny young woman but I was a child, and her smock was enormous on me. Her shirt was almost the right size for me, but I couldn’t go out in only a shirt. I ended up in Julian’s clothes, my legs complaining once again of the itchy feel of trousers on my skin.

I only had my dress shoes to put back on. I couldn’t really run in them but it was all I had. My play shoes were under my bed in Winston House.

I heard a tapping sound and looked out the window, expecting to see Chauncey or Bishop Mather or some angry villager.

Instead it was an enormous crow, tapping at the glass with its beak and staring directly at me with small hard eyes. A second one joined him, and then more. Six in all, all in a row on the windowsill.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 12: Isabelle

  1. From entertaining an unwelcome and unpleasant guest to escaping a frightening mob, the tension builds. And those crows are so menacing. Really enjoying your story.

    Like

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