Red Sky at Night, Lovers' Delight, страница 1
Red Sky at Night
JANE AIKEN HODGE
A Note on the Author
The heat of the summer day had ebbed and the sunset faded. Already, lights here and there below on the marsh showed work continuing at the Tidemills down by the shore. Soon it would be dark. And time to be getting home. The solitary rider took a last look at the great pale sweep of Glinde Bay, then turned uphill into a shadowed lane over the shoulder of the down.
“Who goes there?” Rough hands caught the horse’s bridle and pulled it to a halt.
“What in the world?” The young rider sounded more surprised than alarmed, peering down at the two masked men who had emerged so suddenly from the hedge. “Quiet, Boney.” A gentle hand soothed the fretting horse.
“Boney!” The man who held the bridle glanced quickly up at the many-caped figure above him. “There’s only one horse named for Bonaparte in this district. It’s never—”
“Of course it is.” Amused. “And you’re—”
“No names!” It was he who sounded frightened now, as he glanced sharply across the horse’s back to his silent companion. “And be off with you home, for God’s sake. Not across the long meadow.”
“No?” A laugh in the confident young voice. “You tempt me vastly, my nameless friend. What would I find there, I wonder? A waggonload of tea? We could do with some of that up at the house, and so you might tell your friends from me. Oh, very well.” Sensing something strangely like danger in the air, the rider suddenly capitulated. “Since you ask me so civilly, I’ll go round by the park wall. If you’ll be so good as to let go the reins.” And then, turning back as the horse moved forwards: “The best tea, mind!”
“You should a’ knocked un out.” Left alone, the silent man turned on his companion. “He knew you!”
“That’s my business. ‘No violence’ was the word, and no violence it is. As for that young varmint … I’ll see they get their tea up at the house, all right and tight, and no harm done.”
“That’s my business, too. You’re a stranger here, friend, and the less questions strangers ask, the better for us all. You gave the password: good. Did I ask where you come from? No. Ah! There’s the signal.” An early owl had hooted from somewhere towards the cliffs. “Meeting’s ready to start. You’d best come along with me. They’re a mite leary of strangers.”
“And leave no guard?”
“You surely do think us a lot of country clogheads.” He whistled softly and then addressed a third figure who emerged from the thick-set hedge. “Keep good watch, Tom.”
“Yes, Sam, I’ll do that.” The youth spoke more broadly than his companion. “You said ‘Boney’?” he asked. “That was never—”
“No names, Tom!”
The third man laughed sardonically. “No names! ‘Tom’ and ‘Sam’ and ‘the house.’ I could unravel your little mystery in five minutes if I put my mind to it.”
“No doubt you could, stranger. But I don’t advise it, I surely don’t. Not if you want a chance to speak at our meeting, and ride safe back to London in the morning.”
“And that I do.” Well aware of the threat behind the words, the stranger yielded gracefully, merely adding, “Can’t blame a man for being curious. Spunky young varmint, that! Not a scrap of fear, and us coming on him so sudden.”
“Be curious, if you like, but ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies. And a hell of a lot safer.”
Meanwhile the “young varmint” had emerged from the deep lane and obediently turned left to take the long circuit around the wall of Hawth Park, instead of the shortcut across the meadow. Tedious, but a gentleman’s word was his bond, and it would only put half an hour on the ride home to Warren House.
But the evening’s adventures were not yet over. Hawth Park had stood empty and desolate ever since old Lord Hawth had died, full of age and dishonour, in Trafalgar year, and there was no other house but the Warren this side of the county town of Glinde. So what were a parcel of children doing, coming chattering down the lane?
A quick gesture, and Boney came obediently to a halt, his rump to the park wall, straddling the path. “Well?” His rider surveyed the children, who had rounded the curve of the wall and come to a surprised stop at sight of the horse. “What, may I ask, are you doing out so late? And where the devil do you come from?”
“That’s no way to speak!” The girl’s voice was at once haughty and frightened. “Father would have you whipped for talking to us like that.”
“Oh, would he? And who, pray, is father?”
“Lord Hawth, of course.” A hint of bravado in the girl’s tone now.
“We’re exploring.” This was a younger boy, twelve or thirteen perhaps, who had moved forward to run a friendly hand along Boney’s nose. Contact thus established, he looked up. “Only … we seem to have lost ourselves.”
“Nonsense!” said the girl sharply. “It’s merely to keep going along the park wall and there’s bound to be a gate. Isn’t there?”
“Well, yes.” The gate was back down the lane, the other side of that sinister ambush. “But it’s a good way to walk. You’d best go back the way you came.”
“But we can’t,” wailed the third and youngest child, a girl. “We can’t get back in,” she went on to explain tearfully. “And I know it’s an adventure, but I want it to stop. I want Nurse Simmonds, and my tea.”
“What kind of an adventure?” The question was addressed impartially to the two older children. And then, as they hesitated, “I do think you had best tell me. I promise I’ll help, and not tell tales unless I must. To tell truth—” leaning down in the saddle to be nearer their level—“I quite long to know how you got out of the park. I grew up just across the downs, and I could have sworn there wasn’t an entrance before the main one in Glinde.”.
“So there isn’t,” said the boy.
And, “I think we’d better tell him,” said the older girl.
“I’m sure you should.” The rider dismounted, looped the reins over an arm and held out a friendly hand. “Kit Warrender, very much at your service.”
“How do you do.” Her small hand was cold, and trembled just a little. “I’m Sue Chyngford.” The note of bravado was back. “And this is Giles. And silly little Harriet, who is crying.”
“I’m not,” said Harriet.
“Well—” the rider had bowed courteously to the two younger children—“if you’ve got to walk all the way back to Glinde, I’m not sure that I blame you. It’s five miles if it’s a step.”
“You’ll be able to get us in,” said Harriet. “Sue and Giles weren’t strong enough to move the stone, but I’m sure you can.”
“It’s the secret passage,” explained Sue.
“We found it,” interpolated Giles.
“Good gracious me! You never found the secret passage.” No mistaking the note of genuine respect. “We looked for it—always—my brother and I.” The light voice shook a little on the wor
“Two days,” said Sue.
“It’s easier from inside,” said Giles fairly. “That’s the trouble. It comes out in the ruins up the hill there. A big stone. Opens at a touch from inside.”
“And closes after you,” added Sue.
“And we can’t get it open,” wailed Harriet.
“We’d better go back and have a look hadn’t we,” said Kit Warrender. “Up you go, Harriet. Can you manage astride?”
“Course I can.” The child dealt ruthlessly with muslin petticoats and settled herself in the saddle. “What’s his name?” She leant forward to pat the horse’s neck.
“But he isn’t,” protested Harriet. “He’s beautiful.”
“For the Emperor, stupid,” said her older sister. “That’s right, isn’t it, sir?”
“Call me Kit. Yes, quite right. He was born in 1804. The year Bonaparte crowned himself.”
“Seven years ago?” Sue Chyngford was showing off for the stranger’s benefit. “Has he been yours always?”
“No.” Shortly. “He was my brother’s.”
Something about the tone of the answer stopped the next question on Sue’s lips, and they walked on in silence until a bend in the park wall revealed the ruins of the Saxon priory Cromwell’s men had so thoroughly destroyed.
“I hope we can find the stone again.” Giles looked about him dubiously in the gathering dusk. “It all seems different, coming the other way.”
“Nonsense,” said his older sister. “It’s by a big yew tree. I marked it carefully, just in case.”
It was a pity that there were several big yew trees growing among the ruined walls of the old priory. Harriet was beginning to sniff again when a cry of triumph from Giles proclaimed that they had found the right one. “You see, sir,” he showed it to Kit “It swings out on a … a kind of hinge, only we couldn’t get it moving, Sue and I.”
“Well, let us devoutly hope that I can,” said Kit Warrender, “or we’ve a long walk ahead of us.”
The assumption that they were all in it together had cheering effect on the three children. Harriet stopped sniffing and the other two worked with a will helping their new friend push and pull at the unyielding stone. In the end, Kit thought, it was more good luck than any particular strength or skill that brought the rock swinging out to reveal a dark, yawning hole.
There was a little silence, then, “I don’t like it.” Harriet summed up the feelings of all three children.
“We came this way, silly.” But even Sue’s voice was uncertain.
“At least the candle’s still here, and the tinder box.” Giles had been feeling around on the left of the entrance.
“Well of course they are,” said his older sister quellingly. “You don’t think: dozens of people have come this way since we did, do you? But—is there enough candle left to get us back?”
“I expect so.” Giles sounded far from sure. “I say, sir,” he went on more eagerly. “You wouldn’t like to come, too? Just … just for a lark? To see the passage?”
“Yes, do.” No mistaking the appeal in Sue’s voice.
“Where does it come out?”
“Oh, that’s all right and tight,” said Giles. “It’s behind the panelling in Father’s study, and he’s away, visiting the Prince Regent at Brighton. He just brought us here, and dumped us, and went away again. He won’t be back for weeks. And he locked up the study before he left.” His voice dwindled and died.
“Then how did you get in?” asked Kit.
“We … we found the key. Nurse Simmonds told us about the secret passage, don’t you see, and how it started from the study.”
“The key was just hanging in the butler’s pantry,” explained. Sue, in extenuation. “Oh, do please come, sir … Kit. It does look dark in there. We’ll give you a fresh candle to come back with.”
“Well, it is an adventure,” Kit admitted fair-mindedly, lifting Harriet down and tying Boney to the yew tree. “You go first with the candle, Giles, you next, Sue, and I’ll take care of Harriet. And the quicker the better, once you’ve lit the candle. What’s the going like?”
“Paved.” Now that he was sure of grown-up company, Giles was beginning to feel better. “It’s easy, really.”
“Then let’s get started. It’s time you three hellborn brats were safe home. Your nurse must be having fits.”
“We’re not brats!” Sue’s indignation took her into the tunnel with not so much as a backward glance, and Kit gave a little laugh, took Harriet’s willing hand, and followed. Better not ask how long the children had taken coming through. It would only remind them of that all-too-short candle stub. And though the floor was indeed paved, it would be hard going in the dark. But the air, surprisingly sweet and fresh, suggested that the tunnel could not be very long. It was rising steadily, presumably following the slope of the down. How far above the park wall did Hawth House stand? It had begun to seem very far indeed, and the candle was flickering dangerously low when Giles gave a shout of relief. “Here we are! I’m glad we left the panel ajar. I can see light!”
“Light?” asked Sue anxiously, and the candle went out.
Light indeed. The shining crack that showed ahead of Giles widened as he pushed the panel to reveal a brilliantly lit room, and a still figure, seated at a writing desk, gazing at the tunnel entrance.
“Father,” breathed Giles.
“Quite so.” Frowning under black brows, Mark Chyngford, second Earl of Hawth, rose and moved forward to help his reluctant son down from the tunnel mouth. “All my pretty ones, I see,” he added sardonically, giving a hand to Sue. “And one extra.” He gravely accepted Harriet from Kit, put her down and turned back to find that Kit had jumped lightly down and stood, chin up, to face him. Enormously tall, dark-haired and surprisingly elegant in the Prince Regent’s gaudy uniform, Lord Hawth looked thoughtfully down at his unexpected guest. “I suppose I am to thank you for bringing my hellborn brats safe home,” he said.
Sue let out a surprised giggle. “That’s just what he called us!”
“I do not believe I asked you to speak, Susan.” The black brows drew still closer together. “Giles, before you go to find what punishment awaits you, perhaps you will introduce me to your new friend.”
“Oh, yes, sir. It’s Mr. Warrender, Kit Warrender. We … we invited him to come, sir.”
“Quite so. How do you do, Mr. Warrender.” He returned Kit’s bow gravely. “We meet under somewhat unusual circumstances, but I trust you will take a glass of wine with me before you leave.… Perhaps in a slightly more orthodox manner?”
“But his horse,” wailed Harriet. “He left poor Boney tied to a tree!”
“I do not believe I asked you to speak either, Harriet.” Hawth took a long stride across the room and pulled a bellrope, then turned to gaze down repressively at his three scarlet-faced children. “You will wish to say goodbye to Mr. Warrender and thank him for his kindness in bringing you home, before you retire to your own quarters and the discomfort that awaits you there. Nurse Simmonds has left, by the way. She will not talk to you of tunnels again. Ah, Parsons.” He turned to the door as a black-garbed butler opened it and trod softly into the room. “Our prodigals are returned, as you see. When they have finished saying good-bye to Mr.—ah, Warrender—you will have them taken back to their nursery, where they will stay. Then be so good as to send one of the men out by the sea gate to fetch a horse he will find tied in the priory ruins.”
“Sir!” Speaking up, Kit half expected the same set-down as the children had received.
But, “Yes?” Lord Hawth’s tone was at once courteous and quizzical.
“The Glinde gate would be better. There’s something going on in the long meadow. Smugglers, I think. And a guard out in the lane. That’s why I didn’t want the children to come back that way.”
It earned a sharp glance. “It seems I owe you
He watched impassively while Kit said a friendly good-night to the three children, wishing in vain for some word of comfort. There was not much to offer. Giles was very white. Sue, scarlet with confusion, looked suddenly almost a young woman. Harriet was sucking her thumb. Kit bent to pick her up. “You were very brave, riding my horse, Harriet. And in the tunnel. I’m sure you’re tired. Sue will carry you to bed.” And, handing the child to Sue: “I think they’re all exhausted, sir. It was quite an adventure.”
“Was it?” Uninterested, he watched impassively as the butler led the three children from the room.
“You’re hard on them.” Once again Kit risked a setdown.
“Hard?” One black brow lifted sardonically. “I’ve owned them, haven’t I? Given them my name. Brought them up. Fed them, had them taught manners. I thought.” It reminded him of something. “Forgive me. Your coat, Mr. Warrender. Things are all to pieces here: no housekeeper, no staff to speak of …” He moved forward to help his guest out of the big, caped riding coat
“I’ll keep it on, thanks. That tunnel of yours was cold. And I mustn’t stay. I’m… expected.”
“A glass of wine then, to warm you.” A half empty bottle on the writing desk suggested how he had been passing the time while he waited for his errant children. “Damnation! There’s only one glass.” A furious tug at the bellpull produced a scared footman. “I ordered a supper.”
“Yes, my lord. Directly, my lord.” And then, greatly daring: “In here, my lord? Mr. Parsons was wondering...”
“Of course, fool. Where else, in this pigstye? And a glass, at once, for Mr. Warrender. And another bottle. Two more bottles.” He sat down, rather abruptly, on the big chair behind the desk; then, remembering his manners: “A seat, Mr. Warrender? You must forgive me. You find me a trifle foxed. Blue-devilled, too. I’m glad of your company.” He absentmindedly poured himself a full glass and drank it off. “Your health! Warrender, you said? From the house across the down? But, surely, young Warrender…”
“Died last year,” said his guest. “I’m afraid I have no more right to be Warrender than those agreeable children of yours—forgive me—have to be Chyngford.”