ON THE MORNING we dragged the pond for Patience White, I bent so far down trying to see beneath the surface that my own face peered up at me, twisted and frowning. The three of us had churned up the water until it was half mud and spattered with flecks of weed before I knocked my foot against something loose and heavy that lolled about as we splashed. I tried to push it away from us, but too late.
'It is she.' Izzy's lips were drawn back from his teeth.
I shook my head. 'That's a log.'
'No, Jacob - here, here-'
He seized my hand and plunged it in the water near his right leg. My heart fairly battered my ribs. I touched first his ankle, then wet cloth wound tight around something which moved.
'I think that's an arm,' Izzy said quietly.
'I think it is, Brother.' Feeling along it, I found cold slippery flesh, which I levered upwards to the air. It was certainly an arm, and at the end of it a small hand, wrinkled from the water. I heard My Lady, standing on the bank, cry out, 'Poor girl, poor girl!'
Zebedee reached towards the freckled fingers. 'That's never - Jacob, do you not see?'
'Quiet.' I had no need of his nudging, for I knew what we had hold of. Ever since we had been ordered to drag the pond I had been schooling myself for this.
'You forget the rope,' called Godfrey from the warm safety of the bank.
I looked round and saw the end of it trailing in the water on the other side of the pond, while we floundered. 'Fetch it, can't you?' I asked him.
He pursed his lips and did not move. A mere manservant like me must not speak thus peremptorily to a steward, though he were hanging by his fingernails from a cliff.
'Be so kind as to fetch it, Godfrey,' put in the Mistress.
Frowning, the steward took up the wet rope.
The pond at Beaurepair had a runway sloping down into it on one side, made in past times to let beasts down into the water. It was coated with cracked greenish mud, which stank more foully than the pond itself. We grappled, splashing and squelching, to drag the thing to the bottom of this slope, then Zeb and I crawled to the top, our shirts and breeches clinging heavily to us. Having forgotten to take off my shoes, I felt them all silted up. Izzy, who lacked our strength, stayed in the water to adjust the ties.
'Pull,' he called.
Zeb and I seized an end of rope each and leant backwards. Our weight moved the body along by perhaps two feet.
'Come, Jacob, you can do better than that,' called Sir John, as if we were practising some sport. I wondered how much wine he had got down his throat already.
'Her clothes must be sodden,' said Godfrey. He came over and joined Zeb on the line, taking care to stand well away from my brother's dripping garments. 'Or she's caught on something-'
There was a swirl in the water and a sucking noise. Izzy leapt back.
The body sat up, breaking the surface. I saw a scalp smeared with stiffened hair. Then it plunged forwards as if drunk, sprawling full length in the shallower waters at the base of the runway. I descended again and took it under the arms, wrestling it up the slope until it lay face to the sky. The mouth was full of mud.
'You see?' whispered Zeb, wiping his brow.
The corpse was not that of Patience Hannah White. Our catch was a different fish entirely: Christopher Walshe, late of this parish, who up to now had not even been missed.
'He is the servant of Mr Biggin, Madam.' Godfrey tried yet again, his beard wagging up and down. 'One of the stableboys at Champains.'
The Mistress pressed her veiny hands together. 'But why? Where is Patience?'
'Not in the pond. Not in the pond, which is as good news as the death of this young man is sad,' fluttered Godfrey. 'Might I suggest, Madam, that it were good for you to lie down? Let me take the matter entirely in hand. I will send the youngest Cullen to Champains and Jacob shall lay out the body.'
My Lady nodded her permission and went to shut herself up in her chamber. Sir John, ever our help in time of trouble, made for the study where he had doubtless some canary wine ready broached.
My brothers walking on either side, I cradled the dead boy in my arms as far as the laundry, and there laid him on a table.
'Directly I saw the hand, I knew,' said Zeb, staring at him. He pushed back the slimy hair from Walshe's face, and shuddered. 'It must have been after the reading. Two nights, pickling in there!'
'A senseless thing,' said Izzy. 'He went out the other way, we all of us waved him farewell.'
Zeb nodded. 'And not in drink. Was he?'
'Not that I saw,' I said. 'Unless you gave him it.'
Izzy and Zeb exchanged glances.
'Well, did you?' I challenged.
'You know he did not,' said Izzy. 'Come lads, no quarrels.'
'I have yet to say a harsh word,' Zeb protested.
In silence we took off our filthy garments in the laundry and washed away the mud from our flesh. Izzy gasped in lifting the wet shirt over his head and I guessed that his back was paining him.
'Thank God Patience was not in there.' Zeb, drying himself on a linen cloth, shivered. 'But this lad! Poor Chris, poor boy. Suppose we had not looked?'
'You were wise to leave off your shoes. I fear mine are ruined,' I said.
'Dear brother, that is scarce a catastrophe here,' Izzy replied. He found a basket of clean shirts and tossed one in my direction. 'That'll keep you decent until we can get back to our own chamber.'
'Godfrey could have bidden Caro bring clothes down for us,' said Zeb. 'What are stewards for, if not to make others work?'
'I would not have Caro see this,' I said.
'What, the three of us in our shirts?' asked Zeb.
'You tempt God by jesting,' said Izzy. He limped over to the boy and stood a while looking at him. 'Suppose it had been Patience? I would not be you in that case.'
Zeb started. 'The Mistress doesn't know, does she?'
'No, but it is the first thing thought on if a lass be found drowned,' Izzy replied.
Zeb considered. 'But there were no signs - if I remarked nothing - if any man had the chance, that man was I-' He broke off, his cheeks colouring.
Izzy crossed the room and took him by the shoulders. 'They can cut them open and look inside.'
'Are we in a madhouse? Cut what? Look at what?' I cried.
The two of them turned exasperated faces upon me.
'Ever the last to know,' said Zeb. 'So Caro has told you nothing?'
'Our brother has been hard at work, Jacob,' said Izzy. 'Patience is with child.'
So that was the key to their mysterious talk: Patience with child by Zeb. The great secret, taken at its worth, was hardly astonishing - I had been watching Zeb and Patience dance the old dance for some time - yet I was riled at not having been told.
'Two days and not in the pond. She is run away for sure,' said Zeb. 'But why, why now?'
'Shame?' I ventured - though to be sure, shame and Patience White were words scarce ever heard together, except when folk shook their heads and said she had none.
'She would not have been shamed. Zeb agreed to marry her,' said Izzy.
'What!' I cried. 'Zeb, you're the biggest fool living.'
'I like her, Jacob,' protested my brother.
'Oh? And would you like her for a sister?'
Zeb was silenced. What he liked, I thought, was the place between her legs, for what else was there? We would be all of us better off without Patience. It was impossible any should miss her braying laugh; for myself, I had always found her an affliction. She was Caro's fellow maidservant and a mare long since broken in, most likely by Peter, who worked alongside us and was roughly of an age with Zeb. P...