Deliverance: A Justice Belstrang Mystery
Justice Belstrang Mysteries: Book Three
Copyright © John Pilkington 2021.
The right of John Pilkington to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in 2021 by Sharpe Books.
Table of Contents
The Great Comet first appeared in the southern sky about the sixth day of September, in the year 1618. With hindsight, I might say it marked the beginning of a period of disruption in my otherwise peaceful life, on my modest acres at Thirldon. For many, the object was seen as a portent, called by some the ‘angry star’ because of its reddish hue. Small good could come of such an omen, Worcestershire folk said – not least my own steward Childers.
‘It bodes ill, Master Justice,’ he insisted, as the two of us walked in the garden on a balmy Sabbath evening. ‘See now, what of the war on the Continent? Our own King could find himself caught up in it, and what might follow from that?’
‘It’s hardly a war,’ I told him. ‘Some angry Protestants in Prague threw some Catholic envoys out of a window. It’s what they seem to do in Bohemia – “defenestration” it’s called.’ But seeing his sober expression, I added: ‘I feel sure the King will keep out of the business. He has no wish to lose his reputation as the Peacemaker.’
‘Even though his own daughter is married to the ruler of that country?’ Childers countered.
I had to admit that his point was apt. Since her marriage five years before to the young Elector Frederick, the Princess Elizabeth might indeed find herself affected by the troubles in Middle Europe. Though here in balmy Worcestershire, where news was somewhat slow in arriving, we had heard only vague rumours of unrest.
‘Let us hope for the best,’ I said lamely; my stomach was too full of beef and claret to allow unease to arise. ‘One day, perhaps, these fearful tussles between the two religions may be a relic of the past. I certainly hope so.’
But Childers shook his head. ‘I fear that day will be very far off, sir – if it ever comes.’
We walked back to the house, pondering the matter. England had been at peace for almost a decade, since the Dutch Truce of 1609. But who knew when conflict might erupt again? The Treaty would expire in another three years, and already there was talk of certain factions rearming. Striving to put such matters aside, I gave Childers goodnight and was making my way to my private closet to read Tacitus, when I was accosted in the hallway by a delegation of Thirldon people – or two of them at least: Henry my cook, and Lockyer my manservant.
‘What is it?’ I asked, seeing they had the appearance of men on a mission. ‘I’m about to retire for the night.’
‘Your pardon, Master Justice,’ Lockyer began. ‘We would like to ask your permission to be absent, tomorrow afternoon.’
‘To go into Worcester,’ Henry added.
‘Indeed? For what purpose?’ I enquired.
‘The matter is, there’s to be a play, in the yard at the King’s Head,’ Lockyer answered. ‘The Earl of Arundel’s players are come. It should be a splendid show - our last chance to see them on their summer tour.’
On a sudden, I felt inclined to laugh. These two strong men – Henry the scourge of the kitchens, and Lockyer the fearless ex-soldier – now looked like boys suppressing their excitement at a possible treat. ‘Well, seeing as it’s your last chance, I had best allow it,’ I said… whereupon a thought struck me. ‘Are you asking for yourselves, or on behalf of others?’
A sheepish look appeared on Henry’s face, but Lockyer spoke up. ‘In truth, I understand everyone would like to go, sir,’ he said stiffly. ‘Save Dickon who’s too deaf, and Sarah who thinks play-acting is sinful.’
He named the oldest gardener and the washerwoman, which was small surprise. I thought of Hester, and wondered whether she knew of the players coming to Worcester.
‘So… the import of your request is that I should give almost my entire household an afternoon’s holiday – on a Monday too,’ I said, keeping my face free of expression. ‘Is that so?’
‘It’s washing-day,’ Henry said hopefully. ‘Sarah will still be here to do her work…’
‘And Dickon will mind the yard and stables,’ Lockyer put in.
‘What of Master Childers?’ I had assumed my magistrate’s tone, which caused both men’s faces to fall. ‘Have you approached him with your request?’
‘We… we thought Master Childers would prefer to remain here, in charge of the house,’ Henry answered.
I made no reply; laughter was bubbling up, which I was at some pains to control. Childers regarded plays as frivolous, and all travelling players as rogues.
‘So now we have it,’ I said. ‘Thirldon is to be all but deserted, while my servants decamp en masse for the King’s Head Inn to idle the afternoon away, abandoning their work.’
‘I’ve made a venison pie for tomorrow’s dinner,’ Henry said in a forlorn voice - which broke my restraint. In spite of myself, I let out a gasp.
‘Lord above, then how can I refuse?’ I spluttered – and when both men’s faces lit up, I gave way to laughter.
‘Then you will allow it, sir?’ Lockyer asked, a smile appearing. ‘That will be most welcome news.’
‘No doubt,’ I said, wiping my eye. ‘But mind this: I expect everyone to make their way homewards after the play - no lingering at the inn.’
‘Of course.’ Henry was grinning from ear to ear. ‘Now, with your leave I’ll return to my domain.’
I waved him away, fumbling for a kerchief.