Anna Dean

Author of the Dido Kent mysteries

chawton 030d

A Tale of Midwinter

           It is surprising how well a pair of old pattens and the supporting arm of a handsome gentleman can protect a young lady of nineteen against the horrors of a dirty walk in December.

           Dido's spirits were still high as she and Mr Carew approached Bridge Farm, despite her study of the documents having revealed nothing but a very dull tenancy agreement, which had a great many aforesaids and therefores and parties of the first part in it, but no treasure at all.

           They paused on the bridge that gave the farm its name, and, below them the river appeared black between banks whitened by a thin, wet covering of snow. The farmhouse before them was snug and solid, standing in broad meadows and backed by a steep slope on which sheep grazed, grey shapes against the startling white. A long column of smoke rose very straight from a chimney in the still air of the winter afternoon, and, from a nearby byre, came the lowing of cattle brought in for milking.

           'What is it you mean to ask of Boyd, Miss Kent?'

           'Oh! We must ask him if he knows anything about the treasure.'

           'If he does I doubt he'll tell us the truth. Don't you see? The fellow will probably want to get it for himself.'

           'Then we must watch him closely so we may know whether he is lying.'

           Robert Carew thrust his hands into the pockets of his great-coat and shrugged up his shoulders. 'It aint possible to know whether a man is lying.'

           'Oh, but it very often is! There are little hints in the way he speaks, the way he looks.' She laughed. 'Perhaps it is a woman's skill.'

           'Perhaps it is,' he said, offering his arm and leading her on. 'Don't they say women know all about deception?'

           Dido gave him what she hoped was a repressive look.

           Mr Carew's brisk assault upon the farmhouse door with his fist brought at last the answering sound of footsteps. The door opened slowly and, to Dido's great surprise, revealed Dorothy holding up a lamp.

           'Is your nephew at home?' asked the gentleman.

           'Why no, sir. He's away to Ludlow and won't be back afore dusk.' Her eyes, dark under hooded lids, travelled suspiciously from him to Dido. 'I'm main sorry you've had such a dirty walk for naught, Miss Kent,' she said in such a way as suggested it had been a foolish walk as well as a dirty one. 'But if your business be important Mr Carew, I'll tell Charles to come up to the house directly he sets foot in the yard.'

           He assured her there was no urgency and they turned away from the door.

           'Why is she here?' whispered Dido as they retreated and Dorothy continued to glower at them from the lamp's yellow circle.

           'She comes down regularly. I daresay she likes to oversee Charles's doings – and bully his housemaid.'

           'She is Mr Boyd's aunt?'

           'Yes. Old Dorothy grew up here at Bridge Farm. Came up to be maid to my grandmother when she was just fourteen years old. Damn me though, I can't think of Dorothy ever being so young as fourteen!'

           Dido agreed that it did rather strain the faculty of imagination, but she was still keenly aware of a glow of light behind them. The housekeeper was yet watching them and Dido was possessed of the highly unreasonable idea that she knew the purpose of their visit. She listened for the sound of the house door closing; but it did not come until they were passing the byre and the warmth of cattle was palpable in the raw air.

           Dido looked back at the house then – and, as she did so, her eye was caught by something in the rough sheep pasture behind it. 'Upon my word,' she said, coming to a standstill. 'That is odd. Very odd indeed!'

           'Odd? Why, what's that?'

           She pointed to the slope, white with snow, rising steeply behind the dark bulk of the house. 'There,' she said. 'Can you see? There is a patch of dark earth where the snow has not settled.'

           'So there is, but why…'

           'The snow has not covered it because the ground has been disturbed. Mr Carew, I believe someone has been digging there.'

           'Don't see why a fellow'd want to dig up a sheep pasture.'

           'That,' said Dido, hurrying across the yard, 'is exactly my point.'

           The narrow path that led from the farm up the hill was so very wet and trodden over by sheep that the mud all but sucked away one of Dido's pattens as she hurried upward. Within a few yards of the disturbed ground she stumbled and Mr Carew caught her in his arms.

           'Hey take care!'

           He continued to hold her and she felt the warmth of his body as the icy air brushed her cheeks. All was still around them, just the sound of a little rill of water running close by and further off the thin cry of a sheep.

           Recollecting herself, Dido stirred; for a half a minute his arms maintained their hold, and then he released her.

           'Damned dangerous bit of path that,' he remarked.

           'Yes. Yes, quite so.' She felt a little unsteady and, lest she should fall – or be tempted to fall – again, she looked about for a resting place. There was a large stone just beside the patch of turned earth and she sat down on it. 'Who,' she said, returning her mind to the business of the day, 'would dig here?'

           'Someone looking for buried treasure?' suggested Mr Carew, adjusting his hat and looking down at the patch of soft brown soil that had the appearance of a fresh grave.

           'Perhaps. But why would he dig just here?' She brooded for a minute. 'Mr Carew are you quite certain that your father had no other papers about him when he fell ill? Was there perhaps a map or plan of the farm land? Such a map would commonly accompany a lease agreement, would it not?'

           'Now that is reasoned like a lawyer, Miss Kent! Though I swear I never saw such a pretty little lawyer in my life before.'

           'Hmm.' Dido waved the compliment aside impatiently, looked more closely at the turned earth and bent down to pick something from the mud.

           'What is that you've found?'

           'Nothing. Only a broken bone hairpin.' But she slipped it into her pocket for safekeeping. Her thoughts were racing. 'I believe,' she said at last, 'that there must have been another document which Mr Carew read that night… He had put it aside, hidden it perhaps, before his seizure.' Brooding deeply she put her head into her hands, closing her eyes on her companion's look of bafflement.

           Melting snow slid from the branches overhead and dripped off the brim of her hat. The sullen clouds had parted now and the sun shone out, slanting low through the trees, throwing long shadows from every tussock of dead grass and tiny clod of turned earth.

           She began to rise. 'We must search the bedchamber,' she said.

           But as she stood up, Mr Carew – determined, it seemed, to win a smile from her too serious face – took her hand and said with all the ceremony of a host introducing his guests: 'Miss Kent, before we return to the house, I would like you to meet the Lady Olwen – a very old neighbour of mine.'

           Greatly puzzled, Dido followed the direction of his flourished hand and saw, carved in the rock behind the stone on which she had been sitting, a face. The carving was worn and clogged with moss, but vivid just now in the reddish rays of the sinking sun. It was a round fierce face, as old perhaps as the days of the druids.

           'Lady Olwen?' she said. 'The lady from whom the monks took this land?

           'Aye, that's the one! They say that's her. Been there for centuries.' He was smiling at her surprise. 'A right fearsome old spinster she looks, don't she? And fine brave fellows those monks must have been to take anything from her.'

           Dido looked at the carving as the sun sank. There was something wild and pagan about that face amid the moss and the trailing stalks of dead brown bracken; but she rather liked the Lady Olwen's staring eyes and wide, screaming mouth. There was power about her: more power than any 'old spinster' of Dido's acquaintance possessed.

           'I believe you are wrong, Mr Carew,' she said, beginning the descent without troubling to take the arm he held out to her. 'It was not a woman that the monks stole this land from at all. It was a goddess.'

 

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