Authors: Peter Tonkin
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #Retail
The Point of Death
Peter Tonkin 2013
Peter Tonkin has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2002 by Severn House Publishers.
This edition published in 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Chapter One - The Master of Logic
Musgrave pounded out of the battlefield, running for his very life, wondering distantly: Am I likely to live through this? Or not?
seemed to be most likely. Another shell exploded close behind him. Splinters and shot spattered the slick earth all around him. A wave of force gathered him up and hurled him forward.
had easily topped the five-foot cross at the Market Gate of Carlisle Castle five years ago when he had first left home, and he stood two full cloth-yards tall today. There were those who called him 'Long Tom' these days, measuring him with speculative eyes. Now he measured his own length in the Flemish mud and skidded forward, all elbows and knees; then he jerked erect again, breathless, desperate and angered, at the heart of a sudden silence, looking away left for Talbot Law, his companion, to see whether he was still alive or not.
strong, square figure was staggering erect too, at the far lip of the smoking crater that had so nearly claimed them both, looking at him and desperately waving him on.
pounded forwards. The sudden cold striking into his brain told him he had lost his precious headgear in the blast but there was no going back for it now. On he ran, with desperate determination, up the slope towards the river road, his ears ringing, able to hear nothing of the real world all around him, only the beating gallop of his own racing heart.
crest of the rise revealed the river. It was sluggish, and of the same red-brown colour as the blood-soaked mud. It rolled roughly westward beneath a russet sky from one fortified bridgehead to the next. Between the tall English soldier and the dull water, at the foot of a cliff the height of a partisan pikestaff reaching down from his very toes, the road ran from Nijmagen on his right, away towards the distant coast. The embattled town stood threateningly close at hand, surrounded by sullen besieging armies and defended by grimly determined men.
Tom looked right and left again, his stomach growling with tension and hunger. The local roads were usually as well stuffed with soldiers as eggs are stuffed with meat, he thought. But, here, today, with the war advancing across the fields above it towards the shell-shattered outskirts of the town, this road was empty and still.
for the runaway horse.
and Talbot Law had seen it both together at the same instant five minutes since, away in the far distance, galloping wildly out of the ruins of the Italian lines, past the rough window made by a shell crater in the bank side. Fleeing the dangers of the enemy-infested outskirts, it was following the river road, bound inevitably to come past here. Leaving the gathering battle, they had raced it, striking straight into the curve of its progress. And along this low track, here it came pounding now - Tom and Talbot's quarry; wild, terrified and screaming mad.
was a big horse, bay beneath the mud and blood, square and solid, swift and very dangerous. Its eyes were rolling like Tom O'Bedlam's and its reins were flying free. Along behind it, one foot wedged in a strong stirrup, the beast dragged its rider. Tom spared not a glance for the battered corpse. His eyes were all for the animal. It meant the first square meal in a month to him and the camp for which he and Talbot were the foragers in chief.
, he hazarded, continuing the Epicurean theme so close to the hearts of the starving, and turning to his hard-won Latin as he always did when exercising of his wit. Or
. He was reaching for something even more adventurous, again in Greek - centaur pastries - when the mad banquet thundered up towards his boot-toes and he leaped.
rolling eyes saw sanely enough, like many a gibbering London beggar turning cutpurse behind an unwary back. The horse shied as Tom leaped, jerking its rein away from his grasping hand and meeting him with a square, muscular shoulder. Tom flew sideways and down like a fairground tumbler, the heaving flank grating past him as he fell, and the saddlebag slapping him in the face like a roaring boy set on a brawl. He anticipated yet more mud and the utter ruination of the last of his decent clothing, but things fell out differently. He landed not on the road at all, but upon the rider.
found himself face to face with the corpse, looking down upon it like a lover. His long legs were caught up in the stirrup, his belly rested on the dead man's chest and his elbows held the shoulders down. Then Tom's added weight caused the horse to stumble. The stumble jerked the straps apart and the horse fell, shedding the saddle and the tangled men, even as Talbot Law, wily as a riever from Tom's own wild Borders, leaped down to wrap its head in his jerkin and bring it swiftly under control.
four of them lay still for a moment, the two men living, the dead man and his horse. Then another black shell came hurling over the rise and slammed down into the mud nearby, sending up a pillar of earth and water too close for comfort. Half drowned and half deafened once again, they waited as the thunder of its echo rolled against the black walls of Nijmagen and under the shadowed arches of the great stone bridge it defended. Then, into the relative quiet afterwards, Talbot Law delivered a considered speech. 'Yon bastard culverin will be the death of us yet, Tom, unless we move. It's firing wild with a vengeance.'
enough,' said Tom, preoccupied.
look here, old Law...' He paused, glancing up and down the quiet road. 'There's something here needs a minute more of thought. Something of the greatest importance.'
shrugged and set to coaxing the horse to its feet. He and young Tom Musgrave were the strongest men in the English camp but not even they could carry a horse back to the lines. Once the horse was up, the boy was rapt, his eyes and fingers busy about the corpse in the mud. The solid west-countryman grinned with affection. Another explosion signalled the birth of a rolling barrage as all the guns at the Master Gunner's command were fired off one by one. The horse jumped and whinnied, but remained quiet under Law's assured and gentle hand. 'We must hurry, Tom, that fusillade has been the signal to prepare attack each forenoon for a week.'
looked up. 'You're right. Time for consideration is at an end. Listen, therefore, as I, the Master of Logic, explain my observations; for much of our future may well hang upon them. This new-made member of the Heavenly choir was singing an earthly song this dawn. That is obvious enough. But his song was an English catch. For, look. His shirt is Kentish wool and weave, and of the finest. His hose may be made of French cloth but they are of the English cut. His jerkin is Spanish leather, true, but it fits ill and has been foraged. It may well be a disguise, for he has come up through the enemy lines, has he not? All his weapons and armour are gone, but he rode well-armed to be thus well preserved for our inspection, since the end, at least, of his ride was so rough.
these observations merely lead us on to another question, do they not? A pair of questions; a brace ... Whither this young Englishman, coming through this battlefield? Whither went he and whence came he? He came out of the Italian lines, down by the river gate. I am certain of that. He rode wildly and bravely to his death - death by a bullet from a pistol or dag if the back of his head is anything to go by. Italian pistol, Dutch dag - either one might have done it, even though the Dutch are on the poor boy's side.'
Spanish jerkin would have fooled St Michael himself,' observed Law.
And a fitting epitaph. But his good steed - a good English steed, from its tack, and the brand on its shoulder there, ran straight and true to the English lines. But why, old Law, but why?'
is good sport to hold two soldiers in a ditch at the onset of a battle, Tom,' growled Law, growing as restless as the horse and seeing no practical point to his friend's uncanny cleverness. 'Master of Logic or no, it'd go hard with us if the Sergeant at Arms's men found us here when they were out after deserters. Not even our Forager's Passes would save our necks for us then.'
But sometimes it is as well for a soldier to use his wits as his weapons. For, y'see, old Law, this was a man with a mission, and he was coming up to our lines from down there, below Nijmagen town, when he died.
, I believe.
we can move a little further, by exercise of a moment more of logic, if not of magic. Look, he wore gloves stout enough to have preserved his hands and what fingers are these, callused and black-nailed, singed and smelling of saltpetre? Are these the hands of a courtier to match the boy's fair face and fine apparel? Of a farmer? Of a soldier?'
never the hands of a common soldier,' conceded Talbot Law, his low brow folding into a frown as he looked down at his own huge fists.
said Tom, quietly. 'They're an engineer's hands.'
laughed Talbot caught between wonder and revelation. How could he have missed such a simple truth? The sections of the army kept aloof from each other, but the engineers, with their mud and gunpowder stench, were well enough known to the rest.
was pushing on, however, like a schoolmaster expounding on Logic. 'So what lies before us is a young engineer, sent from below Nijmagen up to our lines, in spite of the risks. Not a common hack-outa-trench-and-set-taper-to-your-petard man but a well-dressed youth, fair of face. An ensign, fit to ride to his death like a lusty lad for his commander and his God. A messenger.'
should try this at the Bartholomew Fair,' said Law. 'You'll prosper. Till you're taken for a witch.' He looked superstitiously around as though naming evil could summon it too.
a messenger supposes a message,' insisted Tom. His hands became busy at the young man's throat, pulling a pouch from beneath the fine Kentish wool of his shirt. 'And a message, in times such as these, carried at such a price, must speak of dreadful danger.' He opened the pouch to reveal a small square, folded and folded. With trembling fingers he unwrapped it and laid it open to the sullen morning. It was no mere piece of paper, but parchment of the highest quality. On its bottom right hand corner it carried a blood-red seal. Beside the seal, there was a ring. Tom looked neither at the seal nor the signet. His eyes were for the message alone: