‘Dad?’ asked Henry, ‘Who lives in Launde House in East Hamme?’
‘Er … I should know the answer to that question,’ Dad replied, ‘It’s a family called Macmillan. I haven’t had much to do with them, they’re Methodists. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s part of my graveyard project, I’m trying to map burials from particular gentry families.’
‘Oh, right. Interesting. I think the Macmillans have been there for a few generations. Old Mrs Macmillan lives there now. She’s a friend of Dr Mac. I think they’re bridge partners. Ask him.’
Dr Mac was in his garden that Sunday afternoon. Ed had gone back to school after lunch, and it had suddenly occurred to Henry that there was one lead he had not followed up in his investigation. He knew that the Corners had long died out in East Hamme, but had forgot to check out the current occupants of Launde House.
‘Hello young Henry. I take it that there’s something you’d like me to help you with?’ said the warden.
‘Yes please. I’m interested in Launde House. Could you get me in to see it?’
‘I can do better than that, I can take you there later this afternoon. Our bridge circle meets there at three, and I’m going there before evensong. Come back in an hour, and I’ll ring Nellie Macmillan to see if I can bring you.’
‘Fantastic Dr Mac … and could you ask her if she knows anything about the old Corner family who used to live there?’
‘Oh, you’re still on the track of the death of the Scudamore boy are you?’
‘Yes, I am.’
Ed and Henry had intensely discussed the last vision before they had left London, and then they had told it all to Justin and Nathan, when they could get them down to earth after the euphoria of the party. The older pair were driving down from London on Tuesday and staying over the crisis period, which was going to be Wednesday, 5th November. They were coming down for Bonfire Night, was the story given to Matt and Andy, who shrugged and agreed.
So now Henry was marking time, with growing nervousness, till the sparks began to fly on Bonfire Night. Launde House was a desperate attempt to distract him from his fears of what was coming.
Mrs Macmillan was very sweet. She made him a mug of tea while he told her about the information he was looking for. She thought a while.
‘Well now Henry, I am of course descended from the Corner family. My great-grandfather inherited it just before the Great War when the last of the Corners died. There are papers. Most of them have gone to the Record Office, but they probably wouldn’t be much use to you … wills and deeds and suchlike. However, my father kept some of the nineteenth-century papers in tin trunks in the estate office. You’re welcome to go and have a look while Neville and I play our bridge. Do come this way.’
So Mrs Macmillan took him down an old flagged passage and into an abandoned office, full of junk with an ancient railed desk, at which Henry guessed the tenant farmers paid their rents. A series of black painted trunks occupied a wall. Two of them had the name CORNER painted on them in white. The old lady took her leave and left Henry standing there wondering where to start. He did the eeny, meeny, miny, moe thing and went for the left hand one. He hauled it out, knelt down and opened the trunk, with a growing sense of excitement.
Inside was a mass of old letters, tied up in bundles by faded pink tape. There was no order or system that he could see. But they were generally of the same period, so he began checking dates cursorily. He stacked them on the floor by decade, and he found some going back to the 1830s. There was none from the time when Jed was alive, but that would have been too much to expect. He concentrated on the 1840s when Sir Nathaniel was in residence at Launde. There was a lot of his correspondence, but all incoming, none outgoing. They dealt with the affairs of the local hunt, the presentation to East Hamme church and field drainage. It was tedious stuff. It went all the way up to October 1845.
The last item was an elaborate funeral card for Nathaniel with weeping angels and a draped sarcophagus, giving the funeral date as 14th November 1845 and the time of gathering at eleven ‘for hippocrass and refreshment’ followed by interment by torchlight, with no explanation for the unusual arrangement.
The rest of the 1840s was the correspondence of Nathaniel’s heir, Alfred, and the correspondence after the death talked of nothing other than his settling into the affairs of the East Hamme estate. As Henry was putting things away, however, one miscellaneous bundle caught his attention. He opened it and it was a collection of the letters of Letitia Alice Corner, Alfred’s daughter, ‘returned by her husband after her death in childbed’ as a slip of paper noted. They covered the period from 1842 to 1847, and mostly were addressed to her betrothed. He riffled through and found a letter for what seemed to be the end of 1845.
‘My Dear James,’ it began, ‘we are now installed in our new home in co. Salop, and mama is fully extended — and not a little flustered — by the need to get in new servants and clean out this dusty old place.
The old general seems to have let things slide these last years. It is said he was quite the tartar when first he arrived from Chelsea. Father is overwhelmed with business, for the general had not left his affairs in the best order. That his death forestalled him can hardly be believed in the circumstances. He was, they tell us, fit for purpose up to the end and seemingly not weighed down by any illness of a physical nature. But that he was depressed and melancholic must be assumed from the way that he chose to end his life, for there can be no doubt that he had long contemplated the self-destruction he carried out upon himself. The gun that was in his hand when he was found in the woods was not one used for sport, but a new repeating pistol of the American sort that he had ordered from London last year.
Father had a great to-do with the rector of Trewerne yesterday about the tombstone. The rector flatly refused to allow a suicide to be commemorated in a Christian graveyard. He said that he had only allowed the burial because it was specific in the old general’s testament, and that had it not been done at midnight it had not been done at all. Such a row there was.’
Henry dropped the letter from his hand. So the mystery of the burial was now cleared up. Nathaniel had shot himself in Trewern wood, and the authorities had not allowed a daytime burial, but insisted on a torchlight funeral, perhaps without the funeral rite. Suicide at the time was a serious sin, and even a Knight of the Bath and a general could not evade its consequences.
There was no further reference to the death of Nathaniel in either box, but he was able to give Dr Mac a full report on it in the car going back home.
‘Well done, Henry. You’re quite the researcher. You might think of doing history at university. You have the gift, it seems clear. You are dogged and don’t give up. So that’s the mystery now cleared up. You might even think of a little article on it in the parish magazine.’ Henry said he would think about it.
As soon as he was home he was on his mobile to Ed about what he had discovered. Ed’s view was in the end his own.
‘Old Nathaniel killed himself on the fiftieth anniversary of Jed’s death and in the same place that Jed had died, although it is clear that by 1845 nobody remembered Jed’s death in the woods. Looks like Nathaniel was driven by guilt and grief that finally overwhelmed him after he’d fought it for years. Poor kid couldn’t live with it any more and topped himself.’
‘Yeah, whatever Justy said, I think the loving, tender Nathaniel survived inside the crusty old general. I think he remained at heart the kid he had been in 1795. The death of his beloved Jed must have been his fault and it warped his life, so he went off to war hoping never to come back. But whatever he did, however reckless, he survived. He grew older and more distinguished, and he occupied the hollowness of living by being busy and active. When he finally retired in 1841 all he had was his empty heart and the guilt that had grown and grown over the years. In the end it just swamped him. So yes, he was a poor kid.’
‘Then what’s going on, Ed?’
‘The guilt and grief is still there, Henry. He never told anyone what had happened when he was alive. Perhaps he couldn’t, but now at last he has found people he can talk to: he’s found us. And you Henry, gay, dark, slim and attractive (well, I think so) is the one on whom he has focussed. He’s telling you his story because you’re just too like his Jed. He can talk to you.’
‘Great … so he’s literally going to talk me to death, then.’
‘Er … not what I said!’
‘What’re we going to do on Bonfire Night? We can’t escape him. He reached out to us in London. Have we got any weapons we can use? Holy water springs to mind.’
‘It’ll be our wits and reflexes, little babe, that’s all.’
‘Another thing … they both planned to go off and be soldiers if they could. Couldn’t that be mixed with the death? Maybe it wasn’t Nathaniel who killed Jed, maybe Jed despaired when Nathaniel said he was going and topped himself because he couldn’t go with him.’
‘A mystery, isn’t it? We will find out though, I’m pretty sure of that. Henry, I think we should confront it. We could barricade ourselves in and try to hide from them, but I think the best thing is to go to Trewern Woods and wait for it there, at the centre of where it’s all coming from.’
Henry shrugged, ‘I’ve got no better ideas. I assume you’ve remembered that Wednesday is a school day?’
‘No. It isn’t. Don’t you remember that November 5th is always a day holiday at Medwardine?’
‘Oh yeah. There’s a daft reason why, isn’t there?’
‘William Campion, one of the Gunpowder plotters was an old boy of our school. So we don’t celebrate Bonfire Night, but in compensation the boys get a day off. It’s a tradition I can support. So I’ll be coming back to Trewern on the minibus with you on Tuesday night.’
‘Are you two alright?’ Mum asked, ‘You haven’t had a row have you?’
‘No,’ said Henry, ‘we’re adolescents, we can’t be bouncy and chirpy all the time ..’
‘Yeah,’ Ed agreed, ‘you gotta have a dose of moody sullenness from time to time, or it wouldn’t be fair to you, would it?’
Fortunately at that moment headlights swept the front of the rectory and Nathan’s Clio pulled into the yard. The two older boys piled out of the car, as the door opened and the Atwood household came out to meet them.
‘Mum, this is Justin Peacher-White, whom we told you about.’
Justin gave Mum a charming smile and a cheerful, ‘Pleased ter meetcha, Mrs Atwood’ that melted Mum in an instant. Nathan shook Dad’s hand with his powerful grip. The parents were momentarily taken aback when the older teens exchanged friendly kisses on the mouth with the two younger boys and gave them close hugs, but they rallied.
Henry and Edward took Nathan and Justin’s bags up to Richard’s room, where they were to sleep. They sat around for a while. Henry filled them in on the latest developments and the boys pondered tomorrow’s strategy.
Justin agreed with Ed. ‘Yer right. Iss stupid sitting here and waiting for it ter happen. If there’s going to be trouble yer might as well go out looking for it and meet it on your own terms. Thass what I think anyway. Have yer got a strategy for when it — whatever it is — happens.’
‘Yeah,’ Henry answered, ‘it’s you. Nathaniel’s only taken us when we are alone up till now. Things might be different if there are witnesses. You may at least be able to monitor what’s going on, and be there to offer support. You can also intervene if you have a chance maybe.’
Nathan nodded his head, ‘Okay Henry, when do we go to the woods?’
‘We know Jed died there in the afternoon of 5th November 1795, so that’s when we’ll be there, from about two onwards, I’d suggest.’
Two o’clock found them winding through Trewern Great Wood. It was a dull afternoon, but not too cold for the time of year. Henry and Edward were wearing thick sweaters and jeans, and holding hands as they looked edgily around them.
Henry whispered to Ed to ask if he thought getting naked was an idea, ‘No, Henry, let’s not make it too easy for Nathaniel. ’Sides, Justy is kinky enough to get off on it.’
Henry led them to the little clearing and they sat down on the ground, Henry next to Edward, and Justin and Nathan opposite. They chatted in a desultory way. Henry gave the other pair a report on the latest speculation. Time passed, and the sun began to dip down as the afternoon progressed. The cloud lifted and sunlight began to break through the leaves, which meant it got cooler, although not in the supernatural way that had happened previously. ‘Wish I’d brought a book,’ Ed remarked, but as he did Henry noticed something faintly odd. He had been idly watching feathery motes drifting in the late afternoon sunlight. One he had focussed on seemed to slow down and then, surprisingly, it gently stopped in midair.
Henry looked round. All three of his friends were still there in the clearing with him, but they had gone strangely rigid, not even blinking. He moved his arm to reassure himself that he too had not become paralysed, and it obeyed his command. Also, it was his own arm, not that of Jehoiadah Scudamore.
Henry stood up and looked around. As he switched his attention back to the group, he was aware a fifth member had joined it, a darkly handsome Byronic boy in the clothes of Lord Byron’s day. The boy gave him a shy smile and put his finger to his lips. He came closer and took Henry’s hand. The hand felt warm and alive, and tugged him away from the others.
They walked silently away through the frozen woodland. Henry had a strange feeling that when he brushed past twigs that they did not part for him, but went through him. Yet if the wood seemed phantom-like, the boy he was with remained perfectly hard-edged and real. Indeed, he seemed the most real thing in the universe at that moment. He and Jed stopped at another clearing and Jed stood directly in front of Henry. He put up his right hand and drew Henry’s face to his own. They kissed deeply, and the other boy’s tongue slipped into his mouth, feeling as warm, real and wet as Ed’s did. They broke off, Jed smiling rather seductively at him.
‘What do you want, Jed?’ was all he could ask.
Jehoiadah seemed about to answer, but his face took on a concerned air. For now a third person was in the clearing, a rather angry-looking old man. Henry recognised him from the ancient daguerrotype. It was Major-General Sir Nathaniel Corner, not the boy Nathaniel he had once been.
The general’s yellow and heavily-lined face was imperious and deeply annoyed at something. He moved quickly and silently towards Henry, but Jed stood between them. Jed seemed to be remonstrating with the old man, but he was roughly pushed aside. It seemed to Henry that it was not by physical means that Jed was moved, but by the sheer force of the man’s anger.
The old Nathaniel seized Henry’s arm and he cried out, because where the old man’s hand touched him he felt a burning as if it was being seared with the cold of the space between the stars. The pain was so great, he fainted, or so it seemed to him.
When Henry opened his eyes, he saw a concerned green pair looking back at his own. He was in Jed’s body once again, and he panicked. It was almost as if he was in chains and gagged. Young Nathaniel stroked his cheek and kissed him lightly. ‘Jed, are you alright? You seemed to fade away almost for a moment. Are you fevered?’
Jed sat up, ‘I don’t know what came over me, dear Nathaniel.’ He grinned, ‘You are eager for me I see.’ There was certainly no doubt from the pattern in Nathaniel’s breeches, that he was highly sexually excited. ‘Always so very eager, Nathaniel. Moderation in all things is not an idea that much appeals to you, is it?’
‘Not where you are concerned, my Patroclus.’
‘Then Achilles, my lord and my master, use me as you will.’
The boys laboured to get out of their rather involved clothing, making an erotic performance of it, staring at each other’s skin and intimate parts as they revealed themselves.
Jed made a light comment about it being so much easier for the real Achilles, and they laughed. At last naked, they lay together on the grass, goose bumps appearing on their flesh in the cold air. They moved close and began kissing together. At the back of Jed’s mind, Henry reflected that Justin and Nathan must be seeing quite a show in the clearing. It was erotic enough witnessing it here.
Eventually they began rubbing their erections together, and Jed spurted very quickly with a great shout. Nathaniel pulled off him, his erection straining for attention.
‘Your mouth, oh please Jed, give me its sweet relief.’ Jed rolled on to his back, and Nathaniel straddled Jed, facing towards his feet. His large member was hanging down above Jed’s eyes and Jed caught it, greedily feeding its bulk into his mouth, straining to accept its width. He heard Nathaniel’s urgent groans above him.
Discomfort turned to alarm as Nathaniel thrust his erection hard down into Jed. This was new in their lovemaking, and unexpected. Jed struggled and kicked his legs, gagging on the bulk now lodged in his throat. But Nathaniel seemed oblivious and began fucking into Jed’s air passage. Henry felt the deadly panic rise in Jed. His host could not breathe and Jed’s nose was in any case blocked, full of mucus. Henry arched, and with red flashes blocking his sight, he blacked out.
Darkness followed for an uncertain period of time. Suddenly there was an approaching light, and colours streamed past Henry. He was sat up in a woodland clearing. The air was warm; he was naked, as was Jehoiadah Scudamore beside him. The other boy looked apologetically at him. ‘Henry, I am so sorry,’ he said.