If he had been doing his duty as a husband and a father, Long George Little would not have been in Carlisle town at all that evening. All the other men of his troop were out on their family farms, frantically trying to get the hay made while the good weather lasted. Some of them were also taking delivery of very tall handsome-looking horses recently raided by their less respectable relatives from the King of Scotland’s stables.
Long George hated haymaking. It wasn’t his fault, he reflected gloomily, as he came out of the alehouse by the castle wall and ambled down through the orchards and into Castlegate street in the warm and shining dusk. There was something in hay which disagreed with him. It was fine while the grass was growing, and he could even mow with impunity, but put him in a hayfield among neat rows of drying grass, and within minutes he was wheezing and sneezing, his eyes had swollen, his nose was running and his chest felt tight. His wife refused to believe in these summer colds. It stood to reason, she would snap, that you got colds in the cold weather, not the hot. That was logic. It didn’t matter; whatever the logic of it, haymaking made him ill and if he started pitchforking the hay onto a wagon, he would also come up in a bright red rash that made his life a misery for another week at least.
On the other hand, his wife was going to make his life a misery as well because there were two fields to mow, and none of the children were old enough to do more than bind and stack. Without her man the whole weight of it fell on her alone since she had no brothers and Long George’s family were busy with their own fields.
Long George didn’t even want to leave the town. His nose was running already: if he went out into the countryside, it wouldn’t be as awful as if he were haymaking, but it would be bad enough. Life was unfair. He didn’t want to be a bad husband…
He paused, his hair prickling upright on the back of his neck. Perhaps unwisely he had been taking a shortcut through an alleyway called St. Alban’s vennel between Fisher street and Scotch street. The thatched rooves hung over, within an easy arm’s reach of each other and although it was light enough outside, in the alley night had already fallen. A tabby cat was watching with interest from a yard wall.
And he could smell sweat and leather and just make out the ominous shapes of three men hiding in various doorways.
Long George drew his dagger and picked up a half-brick, began backing away. His heart was pounding and he wished he had on better protection than a leather jerkin and his blue wool statute cap. He took a glance over his shoulder to check if there was someone coming up behind him, tensed himself ready to make a dash for Fisher street.
‘Andy Nixon, is that you?’ came a low growl. ‘No. No, it’s not. It’s me, Long George Little.’
‘Och,’ said someone else in a mixture of relief and disgust. Long George recognised the voice and let his breath out again.
His brother detached himself from the shadows and came towards him. He had a cloth wrapped round the bottom half of his face.
‘What’s going on?’ Long George asked.
The cat blinked and sat up. The smell of an imminent fight faded as the three other men came out of their hiding places and joined Long George. Their voices growled and muttered for a while, arguing at first and then gradually came to some agreement. Long George grinned and wiped his nose triumphantly on his shirt sleeve. All four of them went back into hiding, with Long George putting his knife away and climbing over the cat’s wall, to hide behind the rainbarrel there.
The cat blinked again, licked a paw. Her ears swivelled to the familiar sound of whistling from the other end of the alley and her whiskers twitched as all four of the waiting men tensed to attack.
On a warm Sunday night, a little the worse for drink, Andy Nixon was in a good mood as he turned into St. Alban’s vennel, thinking of his bed and the various jobs he had to do in the morning. He still had bits of hay in his hair from his usual Sunday night tryst with his mistress and the smug warmth that came from making the two of them happy. He savoured the memory of her again as he ambled along the alley, picking his way instinctively between the small piles of dung left by a neighbour’s pig and the old broken henhouse quietly rotting against a wall, replaying the feel of his woman’s thighs entwined with his own and…
Two heavy shadows jumped out behind him, grabbed for his arms. Andy tried to dodge them, managed to punch one on the nose and knock him over, swung about and tried to run back into Fisher Street.
Another shape vaulted the wall and got in his way as he ran, both of them went over, wrestling against the henhouse and breaking it. Andy tried a headbutt and missed, almost got free from the other man’s grip and then felt his arms caught again and locked painfully behind him. He took breath to yell but one of the attackers clamped a large horny palm over his mouth.
‘We’ve a message for ye fra Mr Jemmy Atkinson, Andy,’ said the muffled voice. ‘Ye’re to leave his wife alone. Understand?’
Andy’s eyes widened as he realised what was coming. He heaved convulsively, throwing one man into the wall and almost getting away, but by then the one whose nose was bleeding had picked himself up, waiting his moment, and punched Andy vengefully several times in the stomach.
Andy doubled over and fought to breathe, but before he could, somebody else drove the toe of a boot deep into his groin and he toppled over into a black pit of pain. More pain exploded in his right hand as someone trod on it; he put his arms up to protect his head and his knees up to protect his stomach. He was walled in by boots that thudded into his back and shins and pounded his bones to jelly and faded the world into a distant island in a sea of hurt.
From far away he realised one of the men was pulling the others off, spoiling their fun. He could just make out the words of the man who had given him the reason for the beating.
‘He isnae supposed to be deid,’ snarled the man. ‘So leave off when I tell ye. Ay, and ye, for God’s sake, what d’ye think ye’re doin’ wi’ a rock? Mr Atkinson said to warn him, no’ kill him.’
There were mutinous grumbles and whining. Somebody felt inside the front of his jerkin.
‘An’ he’s no’ to be robbed,’ came the imperious voice. ‘Get off, will ye.’
They caught their breaths while he lay there in a heap, gradually coming back to the sickening pain all through his body, and trying not to moan in case they started again. There was a sound of them brushing each other down.
‘Mind,’ said another, lighter voice, ‘It wasnae a fair fight, four on one.’
‘It wasnae meant to be,’ grunted the man giving the orders. ‘Did ye mind the lad in the wrestling at the last Day of Truce?’
‘Ay. I won a shilling, thanks to him.’
‘Well, that’s thirty-one shillings he’s earned ye,’ said a third, cheerful voice. ‘And Pennycook’s one rent-collector the less for a bit.’
They laughed and gave him a couple more kicks in the back for luck as they passed by, going on to Scotch street.
Andy Nixon lay still for a long long time, waves of blackness passing through him every so often and moving the stars round the heavens above him. He waited between them for the simple act of breathing to hurt a bit less and nursed his swelling right hand, sick with anger and humiliation and fear for Kate Atkinson, his mistress. The cat jumped down and sniffed curiously at his ear, but then trotted silently off and left him in peace.
A serving girl had lit the wax candles in the Mayor of Carlisle’s dining room, although the long dusk was still burning in the west. The combination of lights fell about the card players, complicating the shadows and flattering the ladies outrageously. Sir Robert Carey, the new Deputy Warden of the English West March, had glanced at his own four cards, known immediately that he had the makings of a chorus and put them down again with an instinctive caution he had learned at Queen Elizabeth’s Court. He looked around idly.
His sister Philadelphia, Lady Scrope, was as pert and tousled as ever in black velvet and burgundy taffeta. She was frowning at her cards. Laboriously she totted up her primero points, while her husband watched her, his gaunt, beaky, under-chinned face quite softened for that moment. Even the Lord Warden of the English West March could lose his heart to a woman and it was right that the woman was his wife. Unfortunately, his wife did not return the sentiment.
To Carey’s left sat Sir Richard Lowther, his enemy and rival for the Deputy Wardenship. Sir Richard was glowering at his cards as if they were reivers he planned to hang, but might be persuaded to let go for a bribe.
Nothing interesting would happen for a while, Carey thought, and let his attention wander again. Two of the players in the second game at the other end of the table were not very well known to him. There was Edward Aglionby, the Mayor, who had invited them to the card party and whose house this was. He was a handsome solidly-built man with fine wavy grey hair under his hat and a grave pleasant manner. There was a local merchant, John Leigh, like Aglionby a Carlisle draper and grocer. He was not paying proper attention to his cards and had lost heavily. Now he was blinking at them again, but clearly not seeing them. Then there was Young Henry Widdrington, heir to the headship of one of the major English East March surnames, painfully spotted. And the one Carey knew so well, who had methodically been taking John Leigh’s money off him all evening, was sitting upright and alert on the bench beside him, with the rose-tinted light from the window falling just so on her face and making her beautiful.
She isn’t beautiful, Carey thought to himself while he waited for his sister to finish counting under her breath. Not even the most maddened poet in the world could say Elizabeth Widdrington was like Cynthia or Diana or Thetis or whoever. She had a long nose and an extremely determined chin and there was no question but that age would make her even beakier. Her hair was a wavy brown, her eyes were the blue-grey of a steel helmet and her mouth would never ever be a rosebud. Wisely she didn’t put red lead on it to make it something it wasn’t.
She felt the warmth of his stare, looked up, caught his eyes and coloured. He smiled, and her cheeks became rosy and her eyes sparkled. It delighted him privately that she blushed when she saw him, more prized in her because otherwise she was distressingly self-possessed. He wondered idly where the blush started and how far down it went and from there went on to his perennial speculations about what he would see when he finally lifted her smock over her head and…
‘Honestly, Robin, you should pay attention to the game.’ He looked round to see his sister grinning at him naughtily. Young Henry Widdrington on Elizabeth’s right was gazing elaborately into space so as not to see the byplay between his young step-mother and Carey. What little skin that could be seen between his outrageous collection of spots was redder than Elizabeth’s. He had folded.
Carey coughed and pushed five shillings into the middle of the table. Sir Richard Lowther breathed hard through his nose and put in his own five shillings with a resolute thump of his hand. He gave Carey what Carey mentally tagged as the bad gambler’s glare and upped the stake by two shillings. Equably Carey shoved his own two shillings into the pot and waited for Lord Scrope, who was dealing, to make his decision. Philly, he knew, was trying to mature her flush and so would stay in for the draw and then fold when she didn’t get it. Nobody could fathom what Lord Scrope thought he was doing at the best of times, and Carey wasn’t going to start now.
Elizabeth was watching him and he looked steadily back at her. Her eyes were still sparkling and she lifted her chin, her mouth curving. Carey moved his padded hose on the bench, the ruff round his neck suddenly feeling tight and uncomfortable. Lord, Lord, her husband, Sir Henry, was a lucky man. Damn the old villain for marrying her; damn Carey’s own father for arranging the match; and damn Elizabeth too for being a great deal more high-principled than most of the married women he had met at Court.
‘Er…’ said Scrope, and pushed his stake into the middle. Philly exchanged three cards—what on earth does she think she’s doing, Carey wondered briefly, as he dropped one card on the table for replacement. Lowther exchanged two, glanced at the cards, and his bushy grey eyebrows almost met in the effort to look disappointed. His fingers started drumming on his thigh. Scrope took two cards, squinted and humphed.
Carey got his new card which was a bit of a long shot, looked at it and relaxed. Most of the time he played strictly on the odds but every so often he gambled wildly on an unlikely hand, just to keep people guessing. On this occasion his gamble had suddenly turned into a much better bet. He was holding all of the fives—a chorus, with a point score of sixty. There were only three hands that could better it: a chorus of aces, sixes or sevens. Naturally it was possible somebody had one—he hadn’t seen any aces, sixes or sevens discarded. The next stage in the game was the vying; it was a peculiarity of primero that you must announce how many points you held in your hand and while you could exaggerate your score, you couldn’t understate it.
‘As I have sixty points I think I’ll raise you,’ said Scrope, with his habitual nervous smile. Philadelphia looked annoyed and folded.
‘Have you indeed?’ sniffed Lowther, ‘I’ve seventy two and I’ll see you and raise you.’
Carey smiled lazily. ‘Eighty four,’ he said, as he often did, and raised the both of them. As they had all folded on the last deal, there were now about three pounds in the pot. Philly tutted under her breath and frowned, while Scrope looked from him to Lowther and back again, trying to read their minds. It was Lowther that Scrope was really worried about, Carey noted with interest; obviously Lowther’s overbid was likely to mean something.
After a lot of hesitation, Scrope folded as well. Lowther glowered at Carey who looked back, still smiling. He scratched the itch on his cheekbone of the glorious green and yellow remnants of a black eye he had got a week before. A prominent local reiver had given it to him, along with many other grazes and bruises and a couple of cracked ribs, but the fault lay entirely with Sir Richard Lowther, who had once been Deputy Warden of the West March and intended to be so again, soon. Carey found that baiting Lowther had added greatly to his enjoyment of the evening; otherwise the play was too slow for him and too inept.
For ten years he had attended at Court and occasionally played cards with his cousin and aunt, the Queen; tense high-stake sessions lasting past midnight, sometimes with the Earl of Leicester, before his death; more recently with the magnificent and prickly Sir Walter Raleigh and Carey’s own patron the Earl of Essex. Nothing could be more different from Carlisle. The hot faintly honeyed smell of expensive beeswax candles had brought it all back to him. At Court there were also occasional yawns from dozing maids-in-waiting and men-at-arms, the rustle of silk and velvet around the table, and the soft clatter of the Queen’s pearl- ropes as she moved to bet. To his surprise he felt wistful for it: the brilliant colours and decorous smells, the sense of finding the edge of himself, every nerve stretched with the necessity for being witty as well as playing cleverly. The Queen was an excellent player with a good memory for the cards and absolute intolerance of hesitation or ineptitude. She expected to win much of the time but she also despised cheating to make sure she would and could spot it better than many coney-catchers in the City. Carey generally found it took five or six sessions with less dangerous courtiers in order to finance one evening playing the Queen.
He brought himself back to the present because Lowther had raised him again by two pounds, so he thought of his bed and of the walk back to the castle postern gate with Elizabeth.
‘Well, Sir Richard,’ he mused. ‘What should I do?’ ‘You could try folding,’ suggested Sir Richard.
Carey shook his head. Sir Richard had misunderstood the reasons why he had folded most of his hands in the first part of the evening; he had been betting only on the odds and very cautiously at that, in order to build himself up. Carey was flat broke again, needed to buy a new suit and pay for a new sword, and had borrowed three pounds off his own servant Barnabus in order to joint the game.
‘I’ll have to hurry you, I’m afraid, Robin,’ said Scrope’s reedy voice.
Suppressing his instant irritation at Scrope’s use of his nickname which he preferred to restrict to relatives and women, Carey nodded and continued to pretend indecision.
‘I have a number of letters which need urgent attention,’ Scrope continued in an injured tone. ‘And a message from the King of Scotland too.’
That was portentously spoken. Quite happy to let Lowther’s tension build, Carey looked up at his brother-in-law and raised an eyebrow.
‘What does His Majesty want, my lord?’ he asked.
‘Well, as you know, he’s bringing an army of three thousand men into Jedburgh soon to try and hunt down the Earl of Bothwell,’ said Scrope, looking at his fingernails. ‘He’s asked me to hold a muster for the defensible gentlemen of the March, to support him if he needs it during his justice raid.’
From the other end of the table Young Henry Widdrington whistled. ‘Won’t three thousand men be enough?’ he asked naively.
Lowther barked a laugh. ‘Not if he’s going into Liddesdale after the Earl.’
‘Mm,’ said Carey casually. ‘Of course, he’ll be disappointed.
The Earl’s not there.’
‘Oh?’ That took Scrope’s attention from his fingers. ‘Where is he? Not in England, I hope?’
Carey shook his head. ‘I understand he’s gone north to the Highlands.’
‘And how d’ye know that, Sir Robert?’ rumbled Lowther. ‘I have my sources,’ said Carey blandly.
‘Of course, he’s also after the horses he lost to the raiders on Falkland Palace,’ Scrope continued after a pause. ‘I can’t tell you how many letters of complaint we’ve had about it. Practically everyone in Scotland seems to have lost the best horse in the country.’
Carey had been distracted by Elizabeth again. The other card game seemed to have finished for the moment. They were drinking spiced beer brought by John Leigh’s ugly little Scottish whippet of a servant and Elizabeth was listening gravely to some involved story from John Leigh while she counted her money. One of the two footmen standing by the door yawned suddenly and looked embarrassed.
‘Half of the horses are in England at any rate,’ said Philadelphia. ‘Thirlwall Castle’s captain had to go off in an awful hurry and I’m sure it’s because his steward told him he had the chance of some superb horseflesh while the going was good. It’s quite lucky really, because it means Lady Widdrington can stay with him on her way home.’ She stopped. ‘Oh, no, she can’t,’ she contradicted herself. ‘The packtrain’s due. Isn’t it, Mr. Aglionby?’
The Mayor smiled tightly across at her.
‘Well, Lady Scrope, we try not tae gossip about the packtrains too much.’
There was a movement over by the window where Mrs Aglionby was sitting stitching at a frame underneath a candle. The woman was sitting up and looking worried.
Philadelphia’s expression became very sweet and innocent which Carey knew from experience meant that the Mayor had annoyed her. ‘I’m sure we’re all friends here,’ she said. ‘And your dear wife told me she thought I would be able to get some black velvet to mend my old bodice by Saturday.’
The dear wife shut her eyes and bit her lip. Aglionby cast a single glance at her before he answered Philadelphia.
‘Ay,’ said the Mayor, just as sweetly. ‘There’s nae doubt we’ll have a piece in the warehouse for ye when we’ve turned it out, and a pleasure to make a gift of it to the Warden’s Lady.’
‘How very kind,’ said Philadelphia. ‘So Lady Widdrington will be able to stay at Thirlwall?’
‘I dinna ken, alas, my lady,’ said the Mayor through his fixed smile.
Carey glanced under the table to be sure of his aim and then kicked his sister hard on the shin.
‘Quite right, Mr Aglionby,’ he said to cover her yelp and to have an excuse to move his own legs right out of her way. ‘It must be a constant struggle to stop the local surnames from disrupting commerce.’
‘Ay,’ said the Mayor heavily. ‘It is.’
Carey was glaring gimlet-eyed at his sister who was glaring back. Get the point, Philly, he was thinking; you weren’t this thick-headed in London, but then you were drinking less. With King James expected in the area and prices already high in Carlisle, the old Roman road from Newcastle is probably choked with plodding ponies, heavy-laden with temptation.
‘Are you going to bet, Sir Robert?’ demanded Lowther, losing patience at last.
Elizabeth was giving back half her winnings to John Leigh and receiving his note of debt in return.
‘Sir Robert?’ said Lowther with emphasis.
Carey smiled sunnily at him. ‘Sir Richard,’ he said and pushed every penny in front of him into the middle of the table. A very pregnant silence fell.
‘I’m raising you,’ he explained, unnecessarily. ‘Er…’ he waved a negligent hand, causing the engraved garnet ring he had once won off the Queen to flash in the candlelight, ‘…however much that is.’
Lowther breathed very hard. He looked at the small pile of money in front of him, checked his cards again and breathed harder.
The others round the table abruptly remembered their jaw muscles and shut their mouths, with the exception of Philadelphia who solemnly studied the embroidery of her petticoat’s false front. She had forgotten her annoyance and her face was suspiciously pink. Carey prayed she wouldn’t explode into excited giggles as she had a couple times at Court. The Queen found it charming, but he didn’t because it gave the game away.
Young Henry Widdrington came over, helpfully pulled the pile of coins towards him and counted them out and there was silence while he did it. The other players watched. Elizabeth took in the scene, looked amused and whispered into Aglionby’s ear. He glanced at her astutely and shook his head, so she whispered to John Leigh and got a nod. Carey felt light-headed with that glorious cold fizzing in the pit of the stomach which could be found only at the gaming tables and in the moment of charging into battle. Elizabeth had seen him play at the peak of his abilities at Court when she was there with Philadelphia in the Armada year and she knew what she was about when she placed her side-bet. Carey hoped Lowther hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t. He was watching Henry count Carey’s winnings of the evening, quite a lot of it originally his money.
‘Twenty-one pounds fifteen shillings and sixpence,’ announced Henry with a slight quaver in his voice.
‘All of it?’ queried Scrope.
‘Yes, my lord,’ said Carey simply.
Everybody was looking at Lowther. He checked his cards again—surely he must know what his points were by now, Carey thought. He was scowling heavily.
‘What did you say your points were?’ he asked again.
‘Eighty-four,’ said Carey. It was the point-score of the highest possible hand in primero: four sevens, each worth twenty-one points.
‘You always say that.’
‘No, I don’t. Not always. Are you going to see me?’
Oh, it was agony to watch him. His hand came up to rub his moustache. The sensible thing for him to do, of course, and what Carey himself would infallibly have done, was to fold gracefully. Unless he actually had a chorus of aces, sixes or sevens.
‘Well?’ asked Scrope tetchily. ‘I must get back to my bed before midnight, Sir Richard, if I’m putting out a muster in the morning.’
Carey felt the outlines of his new goatee beard which was just at the itchy stage, tapped his fingers on his teeth and hummed a little tune. He had decided to shave it in the morning because it was a different colour from his hair at the moment. Lowther had started to sweat. Couldn’t he afford to play? Then he should learn to do it better, thought Carey unsympathetically, who had never been able to afford bad card-playing in his life. Philadelphia had got a grip on herself and was beckoning over John Leigh’s servant.
‘Jock Burn,’ she said, ‘is there any spiced beer left?’
‘Ainly the wine, my lady,’ said Burn after checking the flagons. ‘Oh well, I suppose it’ll have to do,’ said Philadelphia, holding out her goblet imperiously.
Jock Burn came over into the pool of silence that had formed around them and poured for Philadelphia and then for everybody else. He was a dour enough man, and strictly should not have been employed south of the Border at all, since he was a Scot. It was a law everybody flouted since the Scots would work for half the cost of an English servant.
John Leigh was watching the play anxiously, with occasional glances at the window.
‘Sir Richard?’ whined Scrope again.
‘My Lord Warden,’ reproved Carey gently. ‘Take all the time you want, Sir Richard,’ he added generously to Lowther.
Lowther made a strangulated noise.
‘Will ye accept my note of debt, Sir Robert?’ he asked in the tone of a man telling a tooth-drawer to do his job.
‘Of course,’ beamed Carey.
Lowther snapped his fingers irritably at Jock Burn who came over with paper and pens. Lowther scribbled for a moment and then added the note to the pot along with the remnants of his cash.
Carey reached across, picked it up, checked it, nodded and put it back.
‘Just making sure you haven’t raised me,’ he explained to Lowther who seemed close to explosion.
‘Get on with it.’
‘You first, Sir Richard,’ Carey said courteously, wondering for a single icy moment whether Lowther had fooled him.
Lowther laid down a chorus of kings, with a total point score of forty.
Carey laid down his own hand showing sixty points. Everyone, including Philadelphia, sighed and Lowther let out a high little whine. Thought you had me there, did you, you old pillock, Carey thought with savage satisfaction as he scooped in his large pile of cash. There was actually too much to fit in his purse, but Jock Burn was at his elbow with a velvet bag, supplied like magic from under his sister’s kirtle. Elizabeth Widdrington was also receiving a sum of money from John Leigh and smiling triumphantly across at him. Carey smiled back, wanting to laugh.
‘Well,’ said Philadelphia almost truthfully, ‘this has been a very exciting evening.’ She was standing up, shaking out her petticoats and farthingale and smoothing down the back of her kirtle where it had rumpled. Lady Widdrington was doing the same as she rose from her own padded stool. ‘Mr Mayor, Mrs Aglionby, thank you so much for a delightful dinner and some splendid play.’ Tactfully, Philadelphia did not mention the wine which had been terrible. Carey had left all of his, although Philadelphia had finished hers, he noticed. Philly was curtseying to Aglionby and his wife, who curtseyed back in mute distress.
‘Ah, yes, indeed,’ said Scrope benignly. ‘Most excellent. Greatly enjoyed myself.’
Edward Aglionby bowed to both of them and then slightly less deeply to Carey and Lowther. Carey returned the courtesy, Lowther hadn’t noticed since he was staring into space looking very green above his ruff.
It seemed John Leigh was in a hurry to go and had already made his bows while Philadelphia was speaking and left the room, followed by Jock Burn.
Down the stairs and into the darkened street where two yawning, blinking servants were waiting for them with torches to see them back into the Castle. The main gate had long shut but of course Scrope had the key to the postern gate. Carey looked around in irritation.
‘Where’s my man Barnabus?’ he demanded of the oldest torchman.
‘Ah dinna ken, sir,’ came the answer. ‘When we were having our dinners in the kitchen, he said he knew a place he could get better fare and went off, sir.’
‘Blast him,’ said Carey, who had the ingrained caution about walking around with a large sum of money acquired by anyone who had lived in London for any time at all. ‘Oh, well. We should look dangerous enough.’
Lowther said goodnight to Scrope and departed to his home, and the rest of them set off up the side of the market place, past the stocks and into Castle street. The town was empty so close to midnight, even in summer when the sky never really darkened down to black but hung above, a canopy of deepest royal blue, studded with stars.
All about them the scent of haymaking thrust its way across the usual town smells of horse dung and kitchen refuse and the butchers’ shambles on their right. Carey breathed deep and happily before offering Lady Widdrington his arm.
‘You truly like Carlisle, don’t you, Sir Robert?’ she said.
He paused, looked at her and put his own hand on her firm square one.
‘My lady,’ he said. ‘I have won enough money to pay for my new sword and buy me a suit; I have infuriated Sir Richard Lowther; I am away from London and best, best of all, I have your arm in mine.’
She smiled quickly and then looked down.
‘It would take very little more to make me the happiest man in England,’ he hinted delicately and found himself skewered by a grey glare.
‘I don’t think you should tease Sir Richard Lowther,’ she said after an awful pause. ‘You should know by now how dangerous he is.’
This was sensible; Lowther had almost succeeded in getting Carey killed the week before, although Scrope had insisted on an insincere reconciliation. Lowther had been Deputy Warden under the old Lord Warden and had run the March pretty much as he liked. After the Warden’s death, he had confidently expected old Scrope’s son Thomas to make him Deputy Warden in turn and had been very displeased to find that Scrope had asked his brother- in-law to do the job instead. The five hundred pounds per year that the office was worth was only the beginning of the financial loss this had caused Lowther, never mind the set-down to his prestige and power.
‘I can’t help it,’ said Carey trying to look contrite and failing. ‘He’s so eminently teasable. Blast and damn Barnabus! I was looking forward to returning the money I borrowed off him so Lowther could see that even if he didn’t have a better hand, he only had to raise me again and I’d have had to fold.’
Elizabeth snorted, trying not to laugh.
Barnabus had been drinking happily in the company of six beautiful women, when they weren’t busy, and playing dice with some of their few customers. He rolled out of the door having drunk all his money, sad to be leaving the common room still bright with rush dips and a good singsong just beginning. Madam Hetherington had a policy which forbade credit and so he had to leave. Anyway, he remembered that he was supposed to help light his master home from his card-party. He waved goodbye to the juiciest trollop who was leaning out of the window in her smock, and started down the street humming to himself.
Unlike London, Carlisle was dead at night, most of the crime taking place outside its walls rather than inside. And with the hay harvest even the reivers were working hard. If there was a footpad in Carlisle with more practical experience than Barnabus, then Barnabus thought it would be interesting to meet him. He was like a cat at night, automatically silent and stealthy, even when seriously over-oiled and not actively looking for trouble.
It so happened that he took a shortcut through St. Alban’s vennel between Scotch street and Fisher street and tripped on a soft bundle that moaned.
Knowing one of the nastier games played in London, he drew his dagger and looked carefully all about him. There were no bulky shadows lurking that he could see. He bent down again and squinted at the man at his feet, whistled softly.
‘You bin done over good and proper, ain’t you?’ he said.
As Carey said later, if Barnabus had ever in his life paid attention to the Gospel on the Sundays when he had to attend church, he might have behaved differently. As it was, he did at least see the door the beaten man was feebly trying to crawl through, and he lifted the latch and pushed it open, even hefted the man through it. Unfortunately, that was an excuse for him to find the man’s purse on his belt and quietly cut it.
Leaving whoever it was in a heap on the other side of his door, Barnabus turned on his heel and hurried back to Madam Hetherington’s bawdy-house.