Valley of the ravens, p.1

Valley of the Ravens, page 1


Valley of the Ravens

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Valley of the Ravens


  Nancy Buckingham

  About the Author

  Publishing Information

  * * *

  Chapter 1

  The last of the summer daylight was fading. I struck a match and put it to the twin gas brackets above the mantel, then went to draw the curtains, pausing at the window to look out across the gray, smoky town to where the glow from the blast furnaces was reddening the eastern sky.

  Steel. Iron and steel ... sometimes I thought I hated the very sound of the words.

  With two quick flicks I drew the curtains across, shutting out the scene. As I turned back, my father motioned me to come and sit by his bedside.

  “Let us not pretend with one another, Sarah,” he began, reaching for my hand. “We both know that I shall soon breathe my last, and there is something I must say to you. When I am gone, I want you to return to Farracombe.”

  I averted my face so that Papa should not see my sudden tears.

  “How can I go back to Farracombe?” I asked in a whisper. “They would not want me there.”

  “Joshua Lefevre has a great many faults, my dearest, as none knows better than I. But he will not refuse you a home. Your mama was more than just a cousin, remember—she grew up from babyhood as his adopted sister, and he was devoted to her.” Papa closed his eyelids for a moment, gathering his strength. “I have already written to Joshua asking him to take you. I was not intending to speak to you about this until I had received his reply, but my time has run out.”

  “Surely, Papa, there is no need for this. You have explained to me that I shall be adequately provided for.”

  “Hardly adequately, my dear child. True, you will have a modest income, but it is not what I would have wished for you. If only circumstances could have been otherwise.”

  “I shall be able to manage, Papa,” I insisted. “I do not want anyone’s charity.”

  He caught his breath jerkily. “The fact that you will have a little money to your name brings its own pitfalls, Sarah. You are an intelligent young woman, but you do not know the world. Alas, there are many men who would not hesitate to take advantage of you. It is unthinkable that at barely nineteen years of age you should be left to fend for yourself. No, my child, you must go back to Farracombe. There, you will have the advantage of a proper background, and a family to give you the protection you need. I know it is what your dear mother would have wished. Besides, Joshua is your appointed guardian. That was part of our marriage settlement.”

  He had exhausted himself with the effort of talking so much. I said soothingly, “Very well, Papa, I will go back to Farracombe if I am invited.”

  “You promise?” he whispered.

  “Yes, I promise.”

  Satisfied, Papa closed his eyes and drifted into sleep. He died shortly after midnight, without waking again.

  By first post next morning the letter from Farracombe arrived, bearing the Lefevre insignia—a pair of ravens volant. But it was not from Joshua Lefevre, as I had expected; it was from his son, my second-cousin Jerome. He assured Papa that naturally there would always be a home for Sarah at Farracombe Court. That I would be welcome there, when the time sadly came.

  It was no complicated matter to settle up my father’s affairs with his solicitor, for the house we occupied was rented furnished. And leaving Martha, who had looked after us ever since my mother’s death, caused me no pangs of conscience. The family next door had long envied us our competent housekeeper, and she was forthwith offered a post with them. So there was nothing more to detain me in that grimy Lancashire town. Just two weeks after my father’s death, I began the long journey south.

  I had no relatives other than the Lefevres of Farracombe—none at all on my father’s side. As a young mining engineer—an acknowledged expert in the field—Papa had become convinced that there were rich deposits of iron ore under the wilds of Exmoor. His enthusiasm led Joshua Lefevre to suggest that they should enter into a partnership, and a mining company had been formed to start operations on the Farracombe land.

  Within a very short time my father had fallen in love with the girl whom Joshua regarded as his young sister, since her own parents had tragically died in an influenza epidemic when she was a baby. Charles Haddon and Helen Lefevre were married with Joshua’s full blessing, and later my mother gave birth to a daughter—my sister Felicity. Then, after a five-year gap, myself.

  Unhappily, the mining project had not lived up to expectations. Although a considerable amount of iron ore was extracted over the years, the yield was never sufficient to be commercially profitable. Joshua Lefevre was a difficult man to work with, and there were many heated arguments between him and my father. In the end, after the ill-feeling brought about by my sister’s abrupt departure, there came a real breach. The mining was abandoned, and my parents left Farracombe for good, taking me with them.

  Now I was on my way back.

  I could not restrain a feeling of excitement as the train puffed steadily through the richly fertile farmlands and wooded valleys of Devonshire. When I caught my first glimpse of the Exmoor heights, gloriously purple in their August mantle of heather, my heart gave a leap of pure joy.

  The engine rattled over points and, with a screech of its whistle, began to slow down. Impetuously, I jumped to my feet and pulled the leather strap to lower the window. I was greeted by a waft of the soft, sweet-smelling air that I remembered so well.

  A porter came forward and opened the door, handing me down to the platform of the little country halt. I dispatched him to the van to collect my trunks, and glanced around eagerly to see whom they had sent to meet me. Then I spotted a thickset figure in the familiar livery of royal blue with gold piping, and recognized Thomas Tassell, the coachman at Farracombe.

  “Miss Sarah?” he inquired, touching his top hat. As he reached me, I saw his expression change. He stared at me, looking shocked and incredulous.

  “Thomas, what is it?” I exclaimed. “Whatever is the matter?”

  “Thee might be her.” he muttered.

  I knew what he meant. I was precisely the age now that Felicity had been when she left Farracombe.

  “It is not surprising, Thomas,” I pointed out. “You could hardly expect me to look like a child still. I was only fourteen when I went away.”

  “Aye, so ‘ee were! But now ...”

  The porter had loaded my luggage onto a trolley, and we followed him out to the cobbled station yard. I saw that Thomas had brought the victoria, its hood down for the warm August evening.

  Within a few minutes we came to the village. Women appeared in the doorways of their whitewashed cottages to watch us go by, children stopped playing to stare, and a man seated on the bench outside the inn touched his cap to me. Ducks quacked loudly on the pond, and from the forge came the musical ring of the blacksmith’s hammer on his anvil. We came to the little Saxon church with its sheltering circle of yew trees, and from the modern parsonage adjoining it I caught the appetizing aroma of roasting mutton. Then we were through the village and on the road to Farracombe.

  For a time we clung to the course of the tumbling river, its cool, sparkling water filtered down over rocks and gravelly shallows from the peaty moor above. As we began to climb, the groves of oak and ash thinned out until we emerged from their dappled shade into the soft radiance of evening sunshine. The river was well below us now, a winding ribbon of silver. Across the valley lay a neat patchwork of cultivated fields and pasture, but on this side the wild moorland began. Rising above the road was a sweep of bracken, already turning to gold, then a shimmering haze of lilac-purple heather which stretched unbroken to the skyline.

  Thomas sat ahead of me in the high driver’s seat, his solid back
eloquent of resentment. I knew the direction his thoughts were taking, as surely as I knew this road. He was brooding about that day five years ago, when life at Farracombe was abruptly shattered by the disappearance of his nephew, Ned Tassell, and my sister Felicity. Missing, too, was over sixty pounds in gold and silver coin—money for the miners’ wages, which Ned had just collected from the bank at South Molton.

  Thomas Tassell and his wife Batsy, who was the cook at Farracombe, had brought Ned up from infancy and loved him as their own son. They were immensely proud that his cleverness and quick intelligence had lifted him out of the servant class to a trusted position as purser of the iron-mining company. In their eyes, I knew, Ned had been bewitched by my sister. They believed it was Felicity who had led their young nephew astray.

  And what did I believe myself? Was it really the reckless elopement it appeared to be? The question had tormented me throughout the years between. Somehow, despite all the indications, this theory didn’t seem to fit the sister I had known so well.

  Felicity and I had always been close. But not so close that she did not enjoy keeping secrets from me, saying I was too young to understand such things. In the weeks before she went away I had noticed a wild, burning excitement about her, and I’d guessed that Felicity was in love. But in those last few days her mood had vacillated, swinging between high elation and black despair.

  Although it was common knowledge that Ned Tassell worshiped the ground Felicity walked on, which caused a certain wry amusement among our elders, I never for an instant suspected that he might be the man she loved. Being Felicity, she reveled in Ned’s faithful devotion, even encouraged it a little. Yet somehow, remembering how she had often giggled to me about Ned, mimicking him with cruel accuracy, I found it difficult to believe that Felicity had really run away with him. I could not visualize her ever wanting to become the wife of Ned Tassell.

  I had felt convinced in my mind that my sister would soon return or at least send word, giving some simple explanation. But the days slid past and there was no news. In all these years there had never been any news of her.

  “Thomas,” I called, above the clatter of the carriage wheels. “I suppose you have not heard from Ned?”

  “No, nor never shall. He be too ashamed, for certain sure.”

  Thomas lapsed back into a glum silence. But presently, as if forcing himself to a courtesy he found distasteful, he muttered over his shoulder, “Maister told I about you losing your father, Miss Sarah. ‘Tis sorry I be for ‘ee.”

  “Thank you, Thomas.”

  Above us, on the skyline, a horseman suddenly appeared, etched against the soft blue vault of the summer evening. I saw him lift a hand to shield his eyes from the dazzle of the westering sun.

  Thomas Tassell pointed with his whip. “There be Maister now.”

  “Really.” I said in surprise. Then I understood. “Oh, you mean Mr. Jerome?”

  “Aye, Mr. Jerome. T’old maister’s riding days are long past, sad be it. Though I’ll tell ‘ee he can still lay about him with his tongue if he’ve a mind to.”

  A bark without a bite, I reflected. So Jerome was master of Farracombe these days, even while his father still lived. Uncle Joshua must truly have lost his grip.

  Horse and rider were descending the hillside to intercept us, the man upright in the saddle, the fine strong animal almost sitting on its haunches as it negotiated the steep slope. I watched in admiration of the superb horsemanship.

  Thomas reined in the carriage horse, and we drew to a halt as Jerome came alongside.

  “Welcome home, Sarah,” he greeted me.

  Home. What a wealth of comfort in that word.

  I smiled at him. “Good evening, Jerome. It is good to be back. I have been reliving old memories all the way from the station. The very air of Exmoor is unlike any other I have known.”

  “Better than the soot and grime of the industrial north, I expect?”

  “Indeed yes.”

  Seeing Jerome again after five years, I noticed a great change in him. In those days he had been a witty, lighthearted young man, and I had felt somewhat in awe of my dashing second-cousin. Now, it was easy to understand that he was looked up to as the master. There was an air of authority about him. His manner was dignified, almost severe.

  However, I had never known Jerome particularly well, since he had mostly been away from home. First at Eton, then at Oxford. After getting his university degree he had lived at Farracombe Court for a time, learning the practical side of estate management. But there had been a number of explosive battles with his quick-tempered, autocratic father (I had heard about them through Felicity, who frequently passed on tidbits kept from my childish ears) and Jerome came to the conclusion that the only way to keep peace between them was for him to absent himself from Farracombe. He had departed for London to read law in a barrister’s chambers in the Middle Temple, his independence due to a legacy from his mother.

  Jerome had finally come to settle at home when his father’s worsening arthritis obliged him to ask for assistance in running the estate. By then, Jerome had married and he brought his bride with him. But just a few months after their arrival, the crisis blew up which led to my parents quitting Farracombe for good.

  Looking up at Jerome’s darkly handsome face as he sat astride his big glossy bay stallion, I realized with surprise that I no longer felt in awe of him. I was stirred by a different emotion. Admiration, perhaps— respect for a man so in command of himself, so confident of his own ability. Yet at the same time I could not help regretting the loss of his old spontaneous gaiety.

  Jerome swung down off his horse in one smooth movement.

  “I will ride with you in the carriage, Sarah, so that we can talk more easily. Heracles will follow behind—he’s an obedient fellow.”

  The prospect of Jerome’s company for the remaining couple of miles of the journey was most pleasing. I moved over to make room for him on the seat beside me.

  “You have changed greatly in these few years,” he commented as we moved off again. “To look at, you are the double of your sister.”

  “So I have just been made to realize. Thomas had quite a severe shock when he met me at the station. I suppose the resemblance is more noticeable to people who have not seen me growing up and changing slowly.”

  “I fear you will have to get used to everyone remarking upon it, Sarah.” Jerome glanced at the coachman’s back, and added in an undertone, “Memories die hard, you understand. But if he was in any way rude to you ...”

  “No, I am sure he didn’t really mean anything,” I said hastily.

  Jerome nodded, satisfied. But his question had raised disquieting doubts in my mind. Was I going to be accepted at Farracombe as a welcome member of the family? Or would there be reservations about me?

  “Jerome,” I began impulsively, “is it your father’s wish that I should return to live at Farracombe?”

  “Why do you ask that?”

  “It was you who answered Papa’s letter,” I reminded him. “I have always been aware that our two fathers were not on cordial terms. I was too young to understand the situation fully at the time, and afterward my parents were careful not to discuss it in front of me. But I knew there were often serious disagreements about the iron mines, which came to a head just before we left Farracombe.”

  “Whatever my father felt about yours,” said Jerome, frowning, “it will not affect his attitude toward you, Sarah. He always thought of your mother as his little sister. And besides, you are his ward. Naturally, he will welcome you.”

  I could have wished that Jerome sounded more convincing.

  The peacefulness of the evening was shattered by a loud, raucous croaking as two enormous birds with gleaming black plumage flew directly over our heads, their huge wings thrashing the air with slow, measured beats. Involuntarily, I shivered.

  “I see that the ravens are still here,” I said. “I remember how frightened of them I used to be as a young child.”

  Jerome nodded, his face somber. “And as Ginny still is, unhappily. She takes the old country legends of doom far too seriously. Poor child, her head is filled with superstitious fancies and I sometimes despair of her ever growing out of them. I’m afraid that, even though she’s my own sister, I find it difficult to get close to Ginny with such a disparity in our ages. She is badly in need of younger company, Sarah. Perhaps your coming will help her.”

  “I hope it may. I am longing to see little Ginny again. She must be thirteen now, I suppose.”

  “Yes, on the eighth of last month. Not that we can ever celebrate her birthday. Since it is also the anniversary of Mama’s death, my father grieves on that day and it lays a cloud upon the entire household.”

  “Surely,” I protested, “your father doesn’t still blame poor Ginny for being born? It seems bitterly unfair.”

  “He loved my mother very deeply, Sarah. And in recent years, his crippling arthritis has affected his whole outlook on life, I’m afraid.”

  Anger seemed suddenly to overwhelm me, and my concern for Ginny was only part of it.

  “You are trying to make excuses for your father’s behavior, but I won’t listen to you. How can it ever be justified to be so bitter against one’s child, through no fault of hers? Any more than it is justifiable to go back on one’s word to a business partner. My father was a fine and honorable man, Jerome, yet your father saw fit to ruin and discredit him.”

  My voice had risen, and Jerome glanced warningly at Thomas Tassell’s back.

  “The whole mining project was a most unhappy episode,” he acknowledged. “One that is best forgotten.”

  I blinked back the tears that pricked my eyes, remembering how my dear, gentle papa had been so wronged and misunderstood. But Jerome was in no way responsible for his father’s past actions, I reminded myself. I changed the subject hastily.

  “How is Nadine?” I inquired. “Is she still as keen as ever on riding?” When Jerome made no reply, I added, “I was almost surprised not to see her out with you this evening.”

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