The three boys came up through the gill behind the chapel, so that they were hidden from the big house and the stables. Tom, the eldest, led them as he always did, but the youngest brother was close on his heels, and when Tom paused where the stream made its first turn above the village he renewed his argument. ‘Why do I always have to be the cat? Why can I never join in the fun, Tom?’
‘Because you are the littlest,’ Tom told him, with lordly authority. He was surveying the tiny hamlet below them, which was now visible in the slot of the ravine. Smoke was rising from the forge in the smithy, and washing flapped in the easterly breeze behind the Widow Evans’s cottage, but there was no sign of human life. At this time of day most of the men would be out in his father’s fields, for the harvest was in full swing, while those women who were not toiling beside them would be at work in the big house.
Tom grinned with satisfaction and anticipation. ‘No one’s spotted us.’ No one to carry reports back to their father.
‘It’s not fair.’ Dorian was not so easily distracted from his argument. His coppery gold curls spilled down on to his forehead, giving him the look of an angry cherub. ‘You never let me do anything.’
‘Who let you fly his hawk last week? I did.’ Tom rounded on him. ‘Who let you fire his musket yesterday? I did. Who let you steer the cutter?’
‘But me no buts.’ Tom glowered at him. ‘Who’s the captain of this crew, anyway?’
‘You are, Tom.’ Dorian dropped his green eyes under the force of his elder brother’s stare. ‘But, still-’
‘You can go with Tom in my place, if you want.’ Guy spoke softly for the first time. ‘I’ll play the cat.’
Tom turned to his younger twin, while Dorian exclaimed, ‘Can I, Guy? Will you really?’ It was only when he smiled that his full beauty burst out, like sunlight through parting clouds.
‘No, he won’t!’ Tom cut in. ‘Dorry’s only a baby. He can’t come. He’ll stay on the roof to keep the cat.’
‘I’m not a baby,’ Dorian protested furiously. ‘I’m nearly eleven.’
‘If you’re not a baby, show us your ball hairs,’ Tom challenged him. Since he had sprouted his own, these had become Tom’s yardstick of seniority.
Dorian ignored him, he had not even a pale ginger fluff to match the impressive growth of his elder brother. He went on to another tack. ‘I’ll just watch, that’s all.’
‘Yes, you’ll watch from the roof.’ Tom killed the argument dead in its tracks. ‘Come on! We’ll be late.’ He struck out up the steep ravine.
The other two trailed after him with varying degrees of reluctance. ‘Who could come anyway?’ Dorian persisted. ‘Everybody’s busy. Even we should be helping.’
‘Black Billy could come,’ Tom replied, without looking back. That name silenced even Dorian. Black Billy was the oldest Courtney son. His mother had been an Ethiopian princess whom Sir Hal Courtney had brought back from Africa when he returned from his first voyage to that mystic continent. A royal bride and a shipload of treasure plundered from the Dutch and the pagan, a vast fortune with which their father had more than doubled the acreage of his ancient estate, and in so doing had elevated the family to among the wealthiest in all Devon, rivaling even the Grenvilles.
William Courtney, Black Billy to his younger half-brothers, was almost twenty-four, seven years older than the twins. He was clever, ruthless, handsome, in a dark wolf-like way, and his younger brothers feared and hated him with good reason. The threat of his name made Dorian shiver, and they climbed the last half-mile in silence. At last they left the stream and approached the rim, pausing under the big oak where the hen harrier had nested last spring.
Tom flopped down against the bole of the tree to catch his breath. ‘If this wind holds we can go sailing in the morning,’ he announced, as he removed his cap and wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. There was a mallard wing feather in his cap, taken from the first bird ever killed by his own falcon.
He looked around him. From here the view encompassed almost half the Courtney estate, fifteen thousand acres of rolling hills and steep valleys, of woodland, pasture and wheatfields that stretched down to the cliffs along the shore, and reached almost to the outskirts of the port. But it was ground so familiar that Tom did not linger long on the view. ‘I’ll go ahead to see if the coast is clear,’ he said, and scrambled to his feet. Crouching low, he moved cautiously to the stone wall that surrounded the chapel. Then he lifted his head and peered over.
The chapel had been built by his great grandfather, Sir Charles, who had won his knighthood in the service of Good Queen Bess. As one of her sea captains he had fought with great distinction against the armada of Philip of Spain. Over a hundred years ago Sir Charles had built the chapel to the glory of God and in commemoration of the fleet action at Calais. He had earned his knighthood there, and many of the Spanish galleons had been driven in flames on to the beach, the rest dispersed to the storms that Vice-Admiral Drake had called the Winds of God.
The chapel was a handsome octagonal building of grey stone, with a tall spire that, on a clear day, could be seen in Plymouth almost fifteen miles distant. Tom vaulted easily over the wall, and sneaked through the apple orchard to the iron-studded oak vestry door. He opened it a crack and listened intently. The silence was impenetrable. He crept inside and went to the door that opened into the nave. As he peeped in, the sunlight through the high stained-glass windows lit the interior like a rainbow. Those above the altar depicted the English fleet locked in battle against the Spaniards, with God the Father looking down approvingly from the clouds as the Spanish galleons burned.
The windows above the main door had been added by Tom’s own father. This time the foes who were being battered into submission were the Dutch and the hordes of Islam, while above the battle stood Sir Hal, his sword raised heroically with his Ethiopian princess at his side. Both of them were armoured and on their shields was blazoned the croix pattée of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail.
The nave was empty today. The preparations for Black Billy’s wedding, which would take place next Saturday, had not yet begun. Tom had the building to himself. He ran back to the vestry door, and stuck his head out. He put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. Almost immediately his two brothers scrambled over the outer wall and ran to meet him.
‘Up to the belfry, Dorry!’ Tom ordered, and when it seemed that the redhead might still protest, he took a menacing pace towards him. Dorian scowled but disappeared up the staircase.
‘Is she here yet?’ Guy asked, with a hint of trepidation in his voice.
‘Not yet. It’s still early.’ Tom crossed the floor and went down the dark stone staircase that led to the underground crypt. When he reached the bottom, he unbuckled the flap of the leather pouch that hung beside the sheathed dagger on his belt. He brought out the heavy iron key that he had removed from his father’s study that morning, and unlocked the grille gate, then swung it open on its creaking hinges. He showed no hesitation as he entered the vault where so many of his ancestors lay in their stone sarcophagi. Guy followed him with less confidence. The presence of the dead always made him uneasy. He paused at the entrance to the crypt.
There were high windows at ground level through which glimmered an eerie light, the only illumination. Stone and marble coffins were arranged around the circular walls of the crypt. There were sixteen, all of the Courtneys and their wives since Great-grandfather Charles. Guy looked instinctively to the marble coffin that contained the earthly remains of his own mother, in the centre of the line of his father’s three dead wives. There was a carved effigy of her on the lid, and she was beautiful, Guy thought, a pale lily of a girl. He had never known her, never taken suck at her bosom: the three-day labour of giving birth to twins had been too much for such a delicate creature.
She had died of blood loss and exhaustion only hours after Guy had vented his birth cry. The boys had been raised by a series of nurses, and by their stepmother, who had been Dorian’s mother.
He crossed to the marble coffin and knelt at the head. He read the inscription in front o f him: ‘Within this casket lies Margaret Courtney, beloved second wife of Sir Henry Courtney, mother of Thomas and of Guy, who departed this life on the 2nd of May 1677. Safe in the bosom of Christ.’ Guy closed his eyes and began to pray.
‘She can’t hear you,’ Tom told him, not unkindly.
‘Yes, she can,’ Guy replied, without raising his head or opening his eyes.
Tom lost interest and wandered down the row of coffins. To his mother’s right lay Dorian’s mother, his father’s last wife. It was only three years ago that the cutter in which she had been sailing had overturned at the entrance to the bay, and the rip tide had swept her out to sea. Despite her husband’s efforts to save her, the current had been too strong and had nearly taken Hal with her. It had cast them both up in a wind-battered cove five miles down the coast, but by then Elizabeth was drowned and Hal nearly so.
Tom felt tears welling up from deep inside of him, for he had loved her as he could not love the mother he had never known. He coughed and brushed his eyes, forcing the tears back before Guy could see his childish weakness. Although Hal had married Elizabeth mainly to provide his orphaned twins with a mother, very soon they had all come to love her, as they loved Dorian from when she had given birth to him. All of them but Black Billy, of course. William Courtney loved nobody but his father, and he was as fiercely jealous of him as a panther. Elizabeth had protected the younger boys from his vindictive attentions, until the sea took her from them and left them defenceless.
‘You should never have left us,’ Tom told her softly, then glanced guiltily at Guy. But Guy had not heard him, too intent on his prayers, and Tom moved across to the other coffin, which flanked his natural mother. This belonged to Judith, the Ethiopian princess, the mother of Black Billy. The marble effigy on the lid depicted a handsome woman with the fierce, almost hawk-like features that her son had inherited from her. She was in halfarmour, as befitted one who had commanded armies against the pagan. There was a sword on her belt, and a shield and helmet rested on her chest, the shield blazoned with a Coptic cross, the symbol of Christ that predated even the ministry of Rome. Her head was bared and the bush of her hair was a dense curling crown. As he looked at her Tom felt the hatred he bore her son rise in his chest. ‘The horse should have thrown you before you had a chance to whelp that cub of yours.’ This time he spoke aloud.
Guy stood up and came to join him. ‘It’s ill luck to speak so of the dead,’ he cautioned his brother.
Tom shrugged. ‘She can’t hurt me now.’
Guy took his arm and led him to the next sarcophagus in the row. They both knew it was empty. The lid had not been sealed.
‘Sir Francis Courtney born 6th January 1616 in the County of Devon. Knight of the Order of the Garter and of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail. Navigator and Sailor. Explorer and Warrior. Father of Henry and Valiant Gentleman.’ Guy read the inscription aloud. ‘Unjustly accused of piracy by the craven Dutch settlers of Cap de Bonne Esperance, and most cruelly executed by them on the 15th July 1668. Although his mortal remains lie on the far and savage African shore, his memory lives forever in the heart of his son, Henry Courtney, and in the hearts of all the brave and faithful seamen who voyaged the Ocean Sea under his command.’
‘How can Father set an empty coffin here?’ Tom murmured.
‘I think perhaps that he intends one day to fetch back Grandfather’s body,’ Guy answered.
Tom shot him a sharp glance. ‘Did he tell you that?’ He was jealous that his brother had been told something that he, the elder, had not. All the boys worshipped their father.
‘No, he didn’t,’ admitted Guy, ‘but it’s what I would do for my father.’
Tom lost interest in the discussion and strode out into the centre of the open floor, which was inlaid with a weird circular design in granites and marbles of many different colours. Brass cauldrons were set at the four points of the circle, which would hold the ancient elements of fire and earth, air and water, when the Temple of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail was convened at the full moon of the summer equinox. Sir Henry Courtney was a Nautonnier Knight of the order, as had been his father and his grandfather before him.
In the centre of the domed roof of the crypt there was an airhole open to the sky above. The building was so cunningly laid out that, through this opening, the rays of the full moon would strike the design on the stone floor under Tom’s feet where the cryptic legend of the order was inlaid in black marble: ‘In Arcadia hahito.’ Neither of the boys had yet learned the deeper meaning of this heraldic device.
Tom stood upon the black Gothic letters, placed his hand over his heart and began to recite the liturgy with which he, too, would one day be inducted into the order. ‘These things I believe, and I will defend them with my life. I believe there is but one God in Trinity, the Father eternal, the Son eternal and the Holy Ghost eternal.’
‘Amen!’ cried Guy softly. They had both studied the catechism of the order assiduously and knew the hundred responses by heart.
‘I believe in the communion of the Church of England, and the divine right of its representative on earth, William the Third, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith.’
‘Amen!’ Guy repeated. One day they would both be called upon to join this illustrious order, to stand in the light of the full moon and to make these vows in earnest.
‘I will uphold the Church of England. I will confront the enemies of my sovereign Lord, William...’ Tom went on, in soaring tones that had almost lost any last timbre of childhood. He broke off abruptly as a low whistle issued from the opening in the roof above his head.
‘Dorry!’ said Guy nervously. ‘Someone’s coming!’ They both stood stock-still, waiting for the second sharply pitched whistle that would signal alarm and danger, but there was no further warning.
‘It’s her!’ Tom grinned at his brother. ‘I was afraid she might not come.’
Guy did not share his pleasure. He scratched his neck nervously. ‘Tom, I like this not at all.’
‘Bollocks to you, Guy Courtney.’ His brother laughed at him. ‘You’ll never know how good it is unless you try it.’
They heard the rustle of cloth, the patter of light feet on the staircase, and a girl burst into the crypt. She stopped in the entrance, breathing quickly, her cheeks flushed brightly from her run up the hill.
‘Did anyone see you leave the house, Mary?’ Tom demanded.
She shook her head. ‘Not a one of them, Master Tom. They was all too busy a-pigging thar broth.’ Her voice purred with the local brogue, but its tone was light and pleasing. She was a well-set-up lass, with a full bow and stern, older than the twins so probably closer to twenty than fifteen. However, her skin was flawless and smooth as the famous Devon cream, and a tangle of dark ringlets and curls framed her pretty chubby face. Her lips were pink, soft and moist, but there was a sly slant to her bright, knowing eyes.
‘Are you sure, Mary, that Master Billy didn’t see you?’ Tom asked insistently.
She shook her head so the ringlets lanced. ‘No. I looked in at the library afore I came, and he had his head in the books like always.’ She placed both her small hands on her hips, and although they were rough and red from her work in the scullery, they almost encircled her tiny waist. Both twins’ eyes followed the movement and settled on her body. Her full petticoats and ragged skirts reached halfway down her plump calves, and although her feet were bare and grubby, her ankles were slim. She saw their eyes, their expressions, and smiled with a sense of power over them.
She lifted one hand and fiddled with the ribbon that held her bodice closed. Obediently both pairs of eyes followed her hands and she pushed out her breasts so that they strained at the retaining ribbon. ‘You said I would ha’ sixpence for it,’ she reminded Tom, who roused himself.
‘That I did, Mary.’ He nodded. ‘Sixpence for both of us, Guy and me.’
She tossed her head and stuck out her pink tongue at him. ‘You’re a sly one, Master Tom. ‘Twas sixpence each, a shilling for the two, ‘twas.’
‘Don’t be daft, Mary.’ He reached into the purse on his belt and brought out a silver coin. He flipped it in t he air. It glinted in the soft light as it spun and he caught it on his palm, then held it out for her to inspect. ‘A whole silver sixpence, all for yourself.’
Again she shook her head, and pulled loose the bow in the ribbon. ‘Shilling,’ she repeated, and the front of her bodice opened an inch. Both the boys stared at the sliver of white skin that was revealed: it contrasted startlingly with the sun-browned, freckled shoulders above.
‘Shilling, or naught!’ She shrugged with feigned indifference. At the movement, the swell of one fat round breast popped half out, leaving just the pointed tip still hidden but with the border of the ruby aureole that encircled her nipple peeping shyly from under the frayed edge of her blouse. Both boys were speechless.
‘Mice got your tongue?’ she asked saucily. ‘Methinks there’s naught for me here.’ She turned back to the staircase, flouncing her round bottom beneath the skirts.
‘Wait!’ Tom called, in a strangled voice. ‘Shilling it is, then, Mary, my pretty.’