A sneak peek at the novella due out at the end of this month. Set in the summer of 1642, with a family split by more than just politics and religion….
He wasn’t paying very particular attention. He was looking at his neatly folded hands on the scrubbed white tablecloth, and thinking how black his bruised knuckles looked against the linen, and how much he hoped she wouldn’t notice. And that his cuffs were wet, and he hadn’t managed to scrub all the spatters of blood from Symonds’ nose completely out of the linen.
Far off at the top of the stairs, he heard the familiar buzzing whirr as the longcase clock wound itself up to strike the hour, and thought, with a deep sense of resignation, that Roger Coventry had been going for a good half hour already and was like to go for another. Without looking up, he let his mind wander on its customary idle conjecture, imagining his stiff, righteous sister in bed with her appalling husband, the pair of them laid side by side like a pair of marble statues on a tomb, their nightcapped heads rigid on identical stony pillows. What exactly Fly-Fornication and Roger Coventry – and he could never think of his brother-in-law as either Roger or Master Coventry, but by his full name, all run together, Rogercoventry – might say to each other, in the privacy of their chamber. His imagination had never stretched that far, but whatever it was, it had not run to the engendering of children, in five years of marriage.
It was an odd thing. Of his many besetting sins, Thankful Russell did not consider false modesty as one. He was not ill-looking: he was tall and as lithe of build as a sight-hound, with long, thick, pale hair that he wore plainly tied back in a tail at the nape of his neck. His limbs were straight, he did not have a crook-back, or a limp. He had, he flattered himself, a not unhandsome face: high, wide cheekbones, a straight nose, neither too long nor too short; dark eyes that contrasted vividly with his barley-blonde hair and fair skin.
Thankful Russell had been described as beautiful, before now. (Though it had been dark, and she had been three parts drunk at the time, and he had been under her petticoats. Regardless. She’d called him beautiful.) His sister Fly-Fornication had the same build, though on her, it was as lean and comfortless as one of the Egyptian kine in Pharaoh’s dream. Her fair hair was lank and stringy, yanked back from her face and confined under a starched plain white cap. Her eyes were as dark and wide-set as his own, but without any leaven of humour, or kindness, or wit. Afire with zeal, for sure, but he couldn’t imagine Fly as afire for Roger Coventry.
She was looking down the table at him, and Roger Coventry was winding to a confused halt partway through his grace. Fly even unmanned her husband, a man she confidently described as an upright member of the Lord’s Elect. (Thankful would concur with that description. Roger Coventry was, indeed, a prick.)
“Your devotions, sir!” she said, glowering. “You fail to attend!”
“On the contrary, good sister. I am present.” Over twelve years of her sole care, he had grown quick in verbal ambiguity.
Tonight, though, she was having none of it. Tonight her little brother was the worst of miserable sinners, destined to burn for eternity unless he turned to the Lord’s grace and repented his sins. It had frightened him, badly, as a little boy. He had been very, very afraid of the fires of hell. She was fifteen years older than he was and when their mother had died, Fly had taken her duties very seriously. She had held his chubby little five-year-old hand in the kitchen fire until he screamed and told him, very earnestly, that if he was a sinner, he would feel that for all eternity. He’d believed it, too. He had been an unnaturally dutiful little boy, haunted by the twin ghosts of hellfire and the lack of his mother’s love. Had thought that Fly did not love him because he was naughty – because he sinned, even when he didn’t mean to – and that if he was a good boy, she might love him, and then he might be happy, and she might not make him afraid and hurt him. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but he made her angry, because he was bad, and then she had to punish him to make him good again.
And then Fly had married, at the advanced age of thirty, and it hit Thankful like a bolt of lightning that it was nothing to do with his presumably innate wickedness that made his sister so utterly cold towards him. Fly-Fornication did not love anyone, apart from possibly her own image of God, who was as righteous and unforgiving as she was herself. She didn’t love her little brother, and she never would, and there was nothing he could do about it. She didn’t love her stocky, stolid husband – but as he didn’t seem to love her either, there would be no tears shed on that front. (Two identically night-capped heads, staring upwards on a stony pillow, unspeaking.) The Lord be praised Master and Mistress Coventry had never produced children, to continue the unloving. Fly didn’t hate Thankful. He was nothing to her, a blot on a copybook, to be fiercely erased and redrawn over and over until he was as perfect and featureless a copy of God’s little template as she thought she was herself.
He looked back at Fly’s gaunt face, her mouth moving although he wasn’t listening. Thinking of the difference between his sister, who was allegedly female, and Phoebe – whose name was probably Betty, or Joan, but Symonds called her Phoebe when he was drunk, for her rosy-gilt hair. Phoebe was soft and warm and the folds of her skirts smelled of spilled ale and sex. Phoebe liked Thankful. It hadn’t been her that had called him beautiful – he couldn’t remember her name, it had been a while ago – but she liked to sit with his arm round her shoulders in the White Hart in Great Missenden, close to him, with her back against his flank and his hand just under the edge of her bodice, resting on the warm flesh of her breast. He’d acquired some facility at eating and drinking left-handed, though he had not yet learned to play the fiddle with his left hand only. He wouldn’t call Phoebe his girl, exactly. He thought it might have been that which Symonds had objected to. Symonds wanted her, and she wanted Thankful, and Thankful had been more than half-drunk and feeling generous and said if Symonds wanted the wench he could have her, it didn’t bother him greatly, and Phoebe had gone off sobbing. Symonds had took exception to it and it had all gone downhill from there, really. He had ended up in bed with Phoebe, because it was that or go home, but he’d been more irritable than amorous. He liked her, she was warm and funny and generous, but truly, out of bed the girl was as thick as pig-shit and she bored him senseless. She was kind, though.
“And the stink of sin follows you,” she finished malevolently, and he raised his eyebrows politely.
“You reek of whores, you filthy, unclean – abomination!”
“Indeed.” In his head, he lowered his lashes with a glance of withering contempt and applied himself to his supper, ignoring her spittle-sodden ranting. In the hall of the house at Four Ashes, he felt the old familiar hot, tight feeling under his collar, and he slammed his chair back and tossed his head and said, “And I imagine you should know, dear sister, as your dear husband doubtless seeks out the cheapest sluts in Buckinghamshire rather than frequent your cold bed.”
“See the mark of Cain, there!” Fly shrieked jubilantly. “On his throat!”
“That’s a kiss mark, you witless bitch!” he yelled back at her, and Roger Coventry rose to his feet, spluttering. Ordering Thankful out of his own house. He reminded her of that fact. It was his house. He was the last of the Russells of Four Ashes. If he chose to turn her out onto the streets he could do so –
The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly. He could match her, text for text, and the little, cool part of his mind wondered if he’d drive her to an apoplexy, if he kept it up. He felt a little warm glow of satisfaction that fifteen years of punishment had given him that much vengeance. Hours of confinement with no company but his Bible till he had learned his verses to her satisfaction – cold and dark and frightened and hungry, with his head aching because it was too dark to see the words on the page, but not lonely, because if he’d ever known how to be lonely he’d had that broken out of him, and he was now what his sister had made him.
Occasionally, the Lord put words into Thankful’s mouth, and he was possessed by the Spirit. Cool, now, calm, he sat down again and bowed his head over his plate and said quietly, “But of course you may remain, good sister, in all charity. I have volunteered myself in Sir John Hampden’s regiment this very day, to take arms to defend our liberties against His Majesty’s persecutions.”
She was silent, choked off as effectively as a noose. “We have the honourable task of guarding the Train of Artillery,” he went on. “I shall be leaving to take up my commission as soon as may be.”