Timebomb – Introducing Lord Sweetclover

Timebomb – Introducing Lord Sweetclover

Cornwall, England, 1645

Lord Henry Sweetclover was woken by Sarah’s cries. There was a dull ache in his head, his bones felt heavy and old, his mouth gummy and foul. He reached over to the other side of the bed, but found it cold. This wasn’t unusual. His wife was an early riser and normally left him to sleep away the morning. Last night’s revelries had been particularly drunken and energetic, so he had expected that she would break her habit and lie in with him as she sometimes did on those occasions when the wine flowed freely. She had proved herself immune to most things, but a hangover was not one of them.

He rubbed his forehead, which made bright flashing lines appear behind his eyes, so he stopped that, groaned and rolled over, burying his face in the pillow, trying to blot out the noise.

He wondered what could have made his wife rise early after such a night. He thought back, trying to recall whether she had given any indication as to her intended business this day, but he could bring nothing to mind. Except, now he thought about it, she had seemed slightly out of sorts earlier the previous day. Her demeanour had worsened throughout the afternoon such that he was sure he was due a long evening of silent reproach and frosty disregard. He was pleasantly surprised when she produced the cards and the wine as the sun was setting, and even more pleased at what followed after. But on reflection there had been an edge to her revelry. A hint of determination, recklessness, enforced jollity covering some deeper worry. He dismissed the thought. She was a woman. Who knew what went on in her mind. Her moods and fancies were as mysterious to him as the sun and the moon, and he knew no good could come of trying to understand her.

Anyway, what had he expected, marrying a witch?

Footsteps clattered across the floorboards on the landing outside but Sweetclover ignored them. The few remaining servants knew what kind of reception to expect if they knocked on his chamber door before midday, so he was confident he would be left alone.

He pulled the pillow up over his head for a second before some halfwit began banging on his chamber door.

Sweetclover growled his frustration, lifted first the pillow then his head, and bellowed, ‘Cease your infernal banging or be hanged.’

The banging stopped. Grunting, Sweetclover lay down his head again. Before he could muffle it with the pillow once more, a voice called tremulously through the door.

‘My lord, the mistress instructed me to tell you that you are required in the reception room. She said it was most urgent.’

That was another disadvantage to marrying a witch, he thought ruefully – the servants are more afraid of her than they are of you.

‘I shall remember this, Oliver,’ Sweetclover yelled as he threw off the covers and shuddered at the sudden cold. ‘I can always find another stable hand, don’t you worry. It would be the tiniest inconvenience to have you filleted and fed to the pigs.’

He immediately regretted yelling, as his head pounded in response. He swung his legs out of the bed and reached for the flagon of water he kept by his bedside. His wife assured him that hangovers were made worse by something called dehydration – which he understood to mean, basically, being thirsty – and had recommended water as the best remedy. He also unstoppered the glass bottle of pills that she had provided him, and swilled a couple down. He loved these tiny medicines, for they made his headaches disappear in a manner most miraculous. Another advantage of being married to a witch – her potions, poultices and pills made life considerably easier.

‘Oh, and tell Goody Predennick to put the coffee on,’ he shouted, hoping that Oliver was still within earshot. He was rewarded by a distant yelp of ‘yes, m’lord’. A good cup of coffee was worth the pain it took to yell the instruction.

Wincing, he shuffled across the carpet to the new water closet, sloughing off his nightshirt as he did so. Then he stepped into the stone bathing cubicle, pulled the chain to start the water flowing, and took a nice, hot shower. Of all the innovations his wife had brought to Sweetclover Hall, this was his favourite. At first he had been suspicious of her desire to wash herself each day. He had thought it at best unnatural, at worst unhealthy, and he enjoyed the ripe smell of a comely woman. But his wife had insisted that he take a shower every morning, and anoint himself with strange foaming substances designed to cleanse the skin and rid him of the odours that came naturally to a healthy man. He had resisted at first, but gradually he came to appreciate the sensual pleasure of hot water, the pink freshness of his skin and the invigoration that came from an early morning deluge.

But the most important consideration was that his wife had made a daily shower a condition of intimacy. He did enjoy intimacy.

He stepped from the shower, dried himself with a piece of fresh linen, and applied the various unguents and perfumes that his wife provided. Then he enacted the other ritual upon which she insisted – he used a brush covered in a strange-tasting poultice to massage his teeth and gums until they felt smooth and clean. He found this process far less agreeable than the shower. The feeling of minty foam in his mouth made him want to gag but he had to confess that on mornings such as these it felt good once it was done, even if the process of doing it was fundamentally unpleasant. He spat out the foam and rinsed his mouth with water from the basin.

By the time he re-entered the bedchamber he was starting to feel almost well. He dressed quickly. His wife had tried to persuade him to adopt a different mode of dress, but this had been one step too far. The strange trousers and shirt she’d had their tailor prepare had not felt right to him, and she had smiled and shrugged and said OK. He suspected this was because he remained the public face of the family. Whereas she never left the grounds, he was very occasionally required to travel to Lostwithiel or Portsmouth, where strange clothes would only draw attention to his business, which she insisted remain as secret as possible.

He emerged from his bedchamber and followed the smell of coffee down the grand stairs and into the kitchen. Here he found Goody Predennick fussing over the moka pot. A small, round, mousy woman, she was an efficient and affable cook but her appearance belied an iron spine, and her curiosity regarding her daughter’s disappearance had made her troublesome for a while. His wife had seen to that, though.

‘What cause had you for such loud alarums, Goody Predennick?’ he asked brusquely as he helped himself to a slice of buttered toast. His hangover prevented him trying anything more substantial.

She turned, startled by his arrival, and bowed apologetically. ‘Beg pardon, m’lord. There is smoke rising from Pendarn. I fear the war has reached us.’

Sweetclover walked to the door and peered out, munching thoughtfully as he noted the column of smoke that rose to meet the low, dark clouds three miles yonder. He became aware of the cook at his side, peering anxiously past him.

‘And I thought I heard musket fire, sir,’ she said.

Sweetclover felt a thrill of nerves in his already upset stomach. He gingerly laid the half-eaten piece of toast on the kitchen table as he spun on his heels and walked away without a word. He had been expecting this, of course. Even a landowner as minor as himself was required to take sides these days. He had kept a very low profile for the last few years, staying at home with his wife, putting the story about that he was the model of domestic bliss, trying to stay out of it all. The truth was that he did not much care for politics or religion. Never had. He had always been rich and lazy, much to the disgust of his late parents. Until he met his wife, his philosophy had been a simple one: he fulfilled all his responsibilities assiduously, but nothing more. As long as he was able to hunt, drink, play cards and dally with the ladies, he was content to let the rest of the world go hang. But he had known for a while that eventually some army or another would turn up and demand to know where his loyalties lay. To that end, his wife had made preparations. He found, as he walked to the grand reception room, that he was more excited than nervous. The army’s arrival provided a possible explanation for his wife’s peculiar mood. She had the sight, after all. She must have foreseen the coming war and decided to deal with her nervousness in her uniquely agreeable way.

He no longer found the world of glamours, spells and sigils unusual, so he wondered what special surprises she had in store for any force that should besiege them.

He did not envy any army foolish enough to try.

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