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With the tip of her boot, the young woman scraped together a toe-high pile of snow and nudged it over a puddle of congealed blood. Half a dozen men and women in muddy aprons stood around the flagstoned area in front of a tall, narrow brick building, among them a youngster who was stirring the contents of a cauldron with a paddle-like spoon. Heated by a smoky wood fire, the mash inside the copper was steaming horizontally, as if the icy nor’westerly was the breath of a giant cooling his morning porridge. Through the open door, in the half-light, the bulky silhouette of a body dangling from chains fastened to the roof.
‘That looks like a job well done, Master Hallet,’ she said. ‘He was the last one to go before Christmas, wasn’t he?’
‘He was, m’lady. Now there’s only the roasting geese to do. We’ll leave them till next week, though.’ It was the oldest man who had answered, cap between red, calloused fingers. The young woman’s eyes flitted from the butcher’s massive shoulders to the ox’s corpse in the slaughterhouse.
‘Very well,’ she nodded, hugging herself in her double-breasted great coat. ‘Can you manage a dozen on Monday and another on Tuesday? One to go to each needy family on the estate, and the rest for the manor house. And I’ve brought you this, to cheer you at the plucking.’ She turned and produced two stoneware bottles from holsters strapped to her horse’s saddle. ‘Mrs Galbraith’s mirabelle brandy. But Jemmy, for the love of God, don’t tell her I took them. Not until you bring her the dead birds.’
‘Thank ‘ee kindly, m’lady, from all of us, I’m sure.’ The butcher returned her conspiratorial grin and took the bottles; the small group’s appreciation manifested itself as low murmur and a large cloud of breath. ‘Now, as for this one: will Mrs Galbraith be wanting the head and pluck, or Rafe Galbraith the horns and hide?’
He stepped aside and revealed the pale head of an ox, skinned and tongueless, stuck on a pike in the wall of the house. The remains of his windpipe and gullet were dangling below his chin, like the cambric bands of a priest’s collar.
She stared at it. Many people were finding it difficult, this autumn, to slaughter their animals with the same matter-of-factness as in previous years.
‘Dear Lord, Jemmy. He looks like a clergyman murdered in a Paris prison.’
‘Aye, we was jus’ sayin’ that,’ the butcher nodded, quelling two giggling lads with a stern glance. ‘Poor devils. But what do you expect from papists and Frenchies? Anyways, we was quick with him, merciful quick, which is more than –’
‘Father! Father! There’s a – oh, beg pardon, my lady!’ A boy of some eleven or twelve years came hurtling down the path that led up to Brading Downs. His cheeks were flushed, the air around his head a cloud of excitement. He doffed his cap and ducked his head towards the great-coated figure.
‘A coach coming down the Upper Road, m’lady,’ he now addressed himself to her. ‘Seb Adams spoke to Mr Johnson, ‘oo spoke to the skipper ‘oo brought the gen’leman over, and ‘ee says it’s ‘is lordship!’
She had been watching the boy with good-humoured expectation, but at this last, triumphant conjecture, the smile froze on her face.
Jemmy Hallett stopped kneading his cap. Frank Hallett stopped stirring the blood pudding. The only movement seemed to be the boy’s heaving chest and the swirls of breath moving in the air.
‘Where was the coach when you saw it, Georgie?’
‘Going past the Grove, m’ lady. And going fast, so –’
‘Give me a hand, Jemmy, please.’
The butcher sprang into action and linked his fingers while she was already reaching for the reins and pommel. She was up in one swift leap, leaving a spray of earth and snow and frozen blood behind her as she dug her heels into her horse’s sides.