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 patte 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.
Reprinted from Monsoon by Wilbur Smith, a St Martin's Press publication, by permission of St Martin's Press. © 1999 by Wilbur Smith
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