That she, and not he, the son, the firstborn, was his parents’ favourite seemed to Ralf not only proper, but natural. So completely did he share their view that, aged nine, he was fashioning himself into her third guardian.
He reached down and, being careful not to wake her, pulled her hand and thumb away from her lips.
The cart, not very new, hired without driver, was being drawn by two oxen, one white, the other roan-brown. The motion of their broad, fly-pestered backs and horns, the containing sides of the cart, the creaking of axles and felloes, the occasional flick of his father’s switch: all these, like his parents’ desultory conversation, produced for Ralf, who had never yet been in one, the simulacrum of a passage by boat.
His ponderous land-vessel, following the roads through open downs or woods full of birdsong, sometimes passing another more or less like itself, or people on foot, and making ever-deeper headway into his apprehension, left the trees for good and crossed the furzy wastes of Mape Common.
The heavy perfume of the gorse, spreading on the cloying, pollenous air, had at last succeeded in stupefying the wayside grasshoppers, whose chorus had almost collapsed. The road began to descend and the chirping stopped altogether. The cart passed through an acre or two where the bushes had burned away, all but their charcoal skeletons. The soil, the road itself, scorched black, smelled like a hearth. As the road dipped further a view opened up below: marshland spreading as far as a long bank of shingle. Beyond that, glittering in the south-westerly light, Ralf saw the sea.
Mape Marsh, salt and fresh, comprised vast reedbeds and, in the drier parts, rough grazing for the hardy black cattle of the village. The reeds were harvested in winter for thatching, transported to Alincester and beyond. Thousands of bundles were cut each year, but still the reeds kept enlarging their kingdom, crowding upon the coast road and colonizing the verge on the other side, the pond, the brackish banks of the river, the front gardens of the lowest-lying cottages. In those days the plumes in summer spread, purplish-brown, the whole mile from village to beach.
As each reed ripens and grows heavier, the curve of its stem increases and, in concert with the multitude, changes most subtly the character of a marsh. With the frosts of autumn the flower-heads turn silver-bronze. The leaves fall, the stems dry out, and the ceaseless rustling becomes harsher, louder.
A boy who has grown to manhood in Mape, an observant and introspective boy who has spent his most important years roaming there, if blindfolded and somehow transported back to the marsh sixty years later and required on pain of forfeit to tell the season: why, such a one, without any other sense to guide him, could tell you the month and perhaps the very week from the particular quality of reed-rustle that met his ears.
This southern coast seeps into the soul. Flat, ever shifting, dazed and triturated by winter storms, it is reduced by their onslaught to a delirium of heat-shimmered shingle, lagoons, undertows. The gnarled oaks along the shore, the wind-shrivelled holly and blackthorn, the gorse, the seablite and the butcher’s-broom: all cringe before the subjection of the sea. His breath, tainted with tar and rotting fish, hoars the furrows and stunts the tender shoots. Sometimes, turning gigantically in sleep, he puts out an elbow and the dike itself is breached.
Mape is awash not just with water, but light. The sky merges with what lies below. Ripples, reflections, clods, shingle, cloud-colours: these are of the same. In the least mist, the least tremor of convected heat, the horizon dissolves away altogether as with a motion of wings. Even the marsh birds are an emblem of ambiguity. They own neither earth nor sky.
None of Mape’s birds is more ambiguous, or strange, than the bittern: a kind of heron, patterned in brown and darker brown to mimic the stems among which, standing erect with bill pointing skywards, and swaying in time with any motion of the reeds, it becomes invisible even to the practised eye. The bittern feeds on eels and water-rats. It is resident, solitary, reluctant to fly, and so elusive that even the marshmen rarely see it.
Stranger than the bird itself is its spring call, a deep, ventriloquial, and almost disyllabic hwoomp, not loud especially, but so carrying that one may hear it at a great distance. The favoured time is evening: just such a warm, sunny, late May evening as this, in which Ralf’s family and all their remaining possessions came down from the common and reached the coast road on the outskirts of the village.
The cart turned left. Beside it, the reeds were vibrant with the song, jagged and flowing, of many warblers. Then, from somewhere in the marsh, Ralf heard a sound as of thunder suppressed by mud: infinitely mournful, wide-ranging, desperate.
The landscape of his bleak home-to-be had spoken. With this exuded cry it had simultaneously noted his arrival and expressed the perfection of its indifference. His anxiety for the future, which had begun even before he had learned that he was to leave the city, and which had so greatly intensified on the journey south, now crystallized into fear.
“What is it, Ralf?” said his mother, with a hand to his shoulder.
“It’s only a bittern.”
“What’s a bittern?”
“A bird,” his father said. “Even I know that.” And he explained, with a single mild correction from Ralf’s mother, what sort of bird it was.
As he spoke, Ralf looked up at him and felt a little better. For his father he reserved a special kind of worship. If his father could remain so calm and good humoured in the very teeth of the calamity, then perhaps, after all, there might not be so much to fear.
He had been indentured for fourteen years to John Hampden, chief carpenter at the Cathedral. By the age of twenty his skills had far outgone those of a mere artisan. Long before his apprenticeship had ended, he had been one of those chosen by the Bishop to work not only on the choir but also on the rood screen. Ralf’s mother had shown him the most beautiful carvings, some of which bore, among the intricacy of their design, the small crescent moon which formed the signature of Linsell Grigg.
For a time, therefore, Ralf’s father had found himself among men of other crafts. The masons had inadvertently taught him much about stone. He had been fascinated by the groundworks in the precincts of the Bishop’s Palace, where the river had been diverted with a series of culverts. Master Hampden had been engaged on this project also, and he it was who devised the rotatory sluices, the first of their kind, which still regulate the water in the great carp pond beyond the city’s western gate.
After his apprenticeship, Ralf’s father established his own workshop. It did well: he was able at last to free Ralf’s mother and marry, and Ralf and his sister were conceived in a narrow house in Shawcross Street. Five years after Imogen arrived, the family moved to more spacious premises just inside the city walls. Ralf was enrolled in the cathedral school. He learned to read and write, was taught some Latin and even a little Greek. He was eager to learn. Had he stayed, his teachers said, he might have won a scholarship to Dorley.
But then his father fell prey to bad debt and his workshop failed. He was forced to sell up.
Ralf had made some good friends in the city. It had been hard to leave them. And once the word “Dorley” had been uttered in his presence, he had dreamt of little else: the illustrious school, the finest in England, often led to the University. He had felt himself, somehow, destined for a bigger place than Alincester.
There was no school of any description in Mape. The nearest was seven miles along the coast in the town of Rushton, and that only had a few pupils and one master; and anyway, no money could be spared for fees. This town, which Ralf had never seen, had acquired in his imagination a hateful aspect. It was a port, mainly for fishing, but also for trade. Mutton, wool and, he supposed, live sheep, were taken there from the downs and sent to the Low Countries. He envisioned the streets as cramped, cobbled, covered in droppings where they led down to the quay, perennially wreathed in greasy fog.
Mainly he disliked Rushton because it was there that, six days a week, his father was to be exiled. Though Linsell was no shipwright, the best work he could find anywhere near Mape was in the town’s boatyard. He had to be near Mape because he could afford nowhere else to live. Mape was the village of Ralf’s mother, and they were to stay, with the permission of the lord, in her father’s house.
Ralf had been there twice before, once as a baby, and again at the age of five. He could remember his grandfather only indistinctly. Ralf knew that he was not a freeman like his father. He was a serf. His life was attached to the manor. Unlike most of his kind he was not a labourer, bound to the land, but a fisherman.
In a cathedral window Ralf had seen Simon Peter and Andrew, adrift on a luminous Galilee, flinging high their net. The beatific, interchangeable features of the two brothers, so vividly impressed on his mind, had become confused with those of his grandfather. He did recall that his grandfather’s beard was white and that his face was ruddy, quite unlike those of the disciples; and he recalled also that, in his speech and broad frame, he could scarcely be less ethereal than the figures in the window.
His grandmother he could remember no better. She had died since his last visit. He had been considered too young for a funeral, or to make a winter trip to Mape and its windswept graveyard overlooking the marsh.
Attended by most of the village dwellings, the church stood on an eminence bounded to the east by the river. Behind it rose the Hall, the residence of the Baron, Gervase de Maepe.
Most halls and castles elsewhere in this diocese, the richest in the kingdom, had by now been reconstructed in stone. Mape Hall was still framed of wood. As the cart drew nearer Ralf could discern, emerging from the trees, more and more of its tower. From it hung a cream and scarlet pennon which he did not then know as the flag of the de Maepes.
“Hullo, Ralf,” Imogen said, placing her chin on his shoulder and clasping her arms round his chest.
“Have you only just woken up?”
The cart rumbled across the boards of a white-railed bridge. Looking down, Ralf glimpsed stagnant water among the reeds.
A moment later his eye was drawn to movement on the rising road ahead, where the first straggle of cottages began. A boy, barely older than himself and shabbily dressed, was evidently the first to have caught sight of the newcomers and was now running towards them, shouting a greeting.
Ralf felt the heaviness returning to his heart as he half turned and, almost whispering, said to his sister, “We’re here.”
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