tagErotic HorrorCurious Case of a Horseless Headman

Curious Case of a Horseless Headman

bySpencerfiction©

Chapter 1. SUSSEX POSSESSION

The roast chicken is still raw in the middle and the tall, thin, elderly bewigged Judge, red of face and with a hooked beak for a nose, pushes the pewter plate away from him in disgust. Summoned hotfoot to Whitehall from the Quarterly Assizes in Bristol at Michaelmas 1688, he found the Privy Council were not yet ready for him, as the King slept in late at St James' Palace this misty morrow. So Lord Ferdinando Briant, the Crown's Lord Chief Investigating Justice of the Peace, to give him his full official title, has retired to this rude inn close by the river Thames for lunch, taking a private room upstairs, to avoid the public and snug bars, full of vulgar and smelly river men.

"Be it fodder or meat," he intones in grim humour at the disgusting rejected repast, "you are what you eat!"

A light knock on the door and Jones, the junior one of his two manservants pokes his head around the door. "My Lord, a messenger hath come from the Privy Council, thee be summonsed forthwith."

***

"Possessed! My son is possessed by the very devil, Satan himself!" the late arrival yells, a bent and spare-built Lord dressed in a long red cloak collared in ermine.

Just before the outburst, the candle flames flared up as the door to the Privy Chamber was thrown open by the wild-eyed old man, who burst into the meeting, chaired by His Catholic Sovereign Majesty King James II of England and VI of Scotland, so suddenly and unexpectedly.

The Lord President of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, yells from his position next to the head of the table, "Albury, ye're not invited to this meeting, I will have yon Clerk evict thee directly!"

The disheveled Lord Albury, stands ramrod straight, though in his sixties, and sneers at the Lord President as if he were a bug fit to squash under leathern boot.

"Best behead the lad," Albury spits, "release my poor son from his Evil Tormentor, and send the Foul Beast that occupieth him back to the Hell where Satan belongs! I am a member of this Privy Council, and my opinion will be heard!"

"This sitting of the Privy Council," the Clerk speaks calmly and firmly, pouring oil on troubled waters, "has been called to discuss the grave matter of the Satanic Possession of Sir Valentine Albury, your only son, Lord Albury. The Crown's Witchfinder General here will directly seek out the Foul Demon, be he Satan himself or some devil underling who carries out Lucifer's Work of Evil, and will restore your son to thee in due course, fully sane and well, if Almighty God wills it!"

Lord Albury suddenly deflates, as if feeling all his years weigh down upon his shoulders, as he mutters, "Then all is lost, all is lost!"

A murmur automatically rises as half the Council intones "Amen!", several of the noble worthies crossing themselves, as they hear the gate-crashing Lord admit his son is no doubt lost from this earthly realm.

The Lord stumbles, almost in a feint and is carried forth from the chamber by two Royal Pikemen, helped by the woman accompanying him, a tall, slim, comely brunette lady of noble bearing, who appeared to be barely half the Lord's age.

The meeting is called to order, once the intruder is removed, and the flaring candles return to normality. Seven men stand around one end of the long table, Privy Council convention being that the King never sits, nor may any of his Noble Council seat themselves before the King, thus ensuring the agenda is despatched in timely fashion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury continues his interrupted report from whence he left off.

"I've received word from the Archdeacon of Lewes, in the Diocese of Chichester, the Dellamere village Parson, and the Vicar of St Mark's, Swainley, the nearest town to Dellamere in the County of Sussexshire. All three worthy gentlemen of the Clergy declare that attempts to drive out the Demon from Sir Valentine Albury, both medical and spiritual, have failed miserably. The Archdeacon recommends to His Majesty that we leave well alone, clap Sir Valentine in irons and hope the poor creature will, in time, come to his senses and survive this Evil Demonic Possession."

King James purses his thin lips, "An' what, pray, ver ze circumstonces leadin' up to zis possessyon, si'l vous pla'? Ve're sure zat mon prêtre-"

"Sire," the Lord President swiftly interrupts, "while your Jesuit priests no doubt dealt with demonic possessions all the time, while you were once resident at the Court of Versailles, we've our own means of dealing with such grave matters, to wit: the WitchFinder General."

A loud sniff is heard from the tall, bewigged gentleman with the reddened pock-marked face and hooked beak of a nose, stood at the foot of the long table, isolated from the other five notables grouped close around the Sovereign and Lord President.

"Certainment." The King nods, his black wig curls swaying off his shoulders.

"The circumstances," the Archbishop continues, "are that, a fortnight since, Sir Valentine Albury rode from his Dellamere manor to a distant hamlet, Passenvale, also within the County of Sussex, to carry out his annual inspection of tenancies let out to a few rebellious tenants. He was accompanied in this task by the Dellamere Headman, one ... [reading the report] ... Benjamin fforde, that is 'Ford', f-f-o-r-d-e, an ancient family name of common vassals in those parts. They arrived at the hamlet late in the eve, their progress delayed because the Headman had no horse."

"No horse?" Lord Ponsonby asks, "was it lame? Could he not borrow one of Sir Valentine's beasts?"

"According to the Dellamere Parson, Sir Valentine Albury made the Headman walk all day from dawn to dusk, more than a league and a half to the distant hamlet," the Archbishop said, "the Headman is a proud, arrogant boy, barely one and twenty, elected as Headman by his Borough's jury, though he be only a humble shepherd. The Parson reports that fforde is popular with his peers, while Sir Valentine is universally despised by the villagers. There's thus no love lost betwixt the Knight and this base fellow fforde."

"No doubt," nods Lord Ponsonby in understanding the relationship between lord and underling, "I expect Valentine made the Headman walk all the way to knock the arrogance out of the impertinent young cur, take him down a peg or two, what? Headman? It is an insufferable impertinence by the villagers, they should be flogged to a man, what? He is only a shepherd, for Almighty God's sake!"

Sniff! Lord Ferdinando Briant speaks for the first time, from his distant place, his face in shadow, so distant he be from the illuminating wax candles. "Wasn't the baby Jesus welcomed into the world by shepherds? [sniff!] He did not send them packing, Sir, nor take them down even one tiny peg." He is not a Privy Council member, but invited to attend to collect the facts of the case, and to carry the Council's weight of opinion to the scene itself and its subsequent Judicial Inquiry.

"Quite so, Lord Briant, quite so," The Archbishop continues. "However, the local Justice of the Peace has fforde in Swainley Lock-Up for his own safety, else Albury exercises animosity towards his person."

"What were the circumstances of this ... Possession?" asked Lord Wheeler, Admiral of the Red.

"The Archdeacon notes fforde's testimony that they arrived late at Passenvale, where Albury keeps a small household and Steward, but camped just outside the hamlet, on the edge of the common green to await the dawn. During the night, Sir Valentine was possessed by a Demon and tried to attack fforde, in an attempt, the young man believes, to mortally wound him. There were two Witnesses from the local public house on the green who attest to both the madness and the attack. The tenants of the hamlet poured from the public house, wanting to burn the possessed Sir Valentine at the stake without delay. The local Rector to the hamlet questioned the tenants, reports them saying that fforde defended his master, beating off the mob with his shepherd's staff, until their own unexplained bout of madness passed and the Knight swooned before them. Once calmness was restored, fforde strapped the senseless Sir Valentine to his horse and led him home, though he was barely rested himself from his long walk the day before, still so early it was in the passage of the night."

"So," the Lord President announces, "WitchFinder General, go seek ye out this Sir Valentine and see what can be done for the poor fellow and the Beast within who holds him in sway."

"Indeed," the Archbishop says, tightly clutching the cross hanging about his neck, "and take with him the blessings of the Lord Almighty."

"Aye!" the assembly agrees.

Outside the Council Chamber, the door shut firm behind him, the gaunt Judge snorts, "WitchFinder General indeed! I am the Lord Chief Investigating Justice, Lord Ferdinando Briant, appointed by King Charles Stuart upon The Restoration and now serving King James, and in all these years I've never seen a true possession nor even a real witch for that matter!"

Chapter 2. THE COTTAGE

It is a dreary damp, late summer day and the coach shudders as wheels crash into pothole after pothole, the degree of depth and danger disguised by the many full to the brim puddles strewn over the road surface, there barely being a yard length of flat road surface in the entire Weald and Downland of this county. Lord Ferdinando Briant, pulls back a drawn curtain to glance out of the unglazed coach window. There is little to see as the mist from the fields reduces visibility to less than a few feet past the thick hedgerows. At least, he thinks, there was no low early evening sun to further ravage his ruined face, sensitive as it is to the slightest sunlight, an incurable condition from which he has always suffered. The coach judders once more as another pothole threatens to wrench off the wheels and toss his Judicial Lordship unceremoniously from his wooden seat. Then the coach finally lurches to a halt.

"Mud, my Lord, 'tis naught but Sussex clay in these 'ere parts," the coachman Handley apologises, while he and his cousin Jones levers the wheel out of the rut. "The land round here were great for growin' forests but when they'd cleared the trees for iron smelting in the century or three, there weren't nothin' to suck up the rain water what now lies here, stagnant upon the clay."

Ferdinando sniffs in reply. The air smells damp, familiarly foul with rot and decay.

"Thee looks tired, my Lord," Handley ventured quietly, the devotion to his master evident, "more than I've seen before. Does thy time draw near for..."

"Retirement? Aye, I feel my years, John, but I'll rest up this winter, and maybe work another five years, then we can all go home to stay for the duration and you can train up your eldest to serve me once more."

He consults his trusty John Bennett of Clerkenwell watch, an amazing instrument which is rarely out by ten minutes a day. He had set off ten hours earlier, but 'twas necessarily stopped in Swainley, three miles away, for four of those hours. In six hours on the road, the coach had traversed twenty eight miles of mud, with yet two more miles to go! Nine leagues, faster than walking, he thinks, but barely.

He left Whitehall yesterday after lunchtime and happily travelled 32 miles on good roads before arriving at an inn by tea-time; today he'll be lucky to arrive at Dellamere Manor Hall, the home on the Alburys, before dark. Insufferable roads, he mutters, but travel as this he must, only witches apparently fly by broomsticks! He had barely dozed in the bucking coach thus far and he was more than ready for a hot meal and a quiet bed.

A fat honey bee flies slowly past him, going no faster than his coach had at any single time today, and settles precariously upon a dusty Ragged Robin at the roadside, gathering nectar, before wriggling free of the clutching bloom and flying off.

Briant smiles at the bee's movements. Ferdinando loves bees. But he could not yet return to his neglected Cornish estate, to his beloved hives, while his superstitious King denies his retirement until infirmity or death rendered his service useless to the Crown. Almost 70, according to his Manor's parish records, the Lord Chief Justice Investigator feels he has earned his rest after fifty years of toil at his inherited career. His grandfather and great great grandfather before him had been Judges or "WitchFinder Generals" until aged retirement to the ancestral estate relieved them of their appointments, and he was forced by duty to follow their lead, though he'd never seen a true witch and is entirely convinced in his doubts as to their very existence.

It is an hour later that the coach limps under the rapidly darkening skies into the rural village of Dellamere and stops outside the first cottage showing signs of life by a flickering light within, to ask directions to the Hall. It is a crisply whitewashed cottage, its stout oaken frame black in the twilight. Ferdinando barely hears the exchange between the coarse coachman and gentle burr of the tall, dark haired lady giving directions.

"The lady of the 'ouse, 'as 'eard tell we's comin', my Lord. She reckons the hall belongin' to Sir Valentine Albury, be past the Green an' Church, an' up the first lane on the left, and is most likely closed up for the night," Handley, reports back to the Judge. "An', she says, 'The Fightin' Cocks' inn here be a rough billet at best o' times, and present full to burstin' of trav'llers 'ere for the barley harvest gatherin'. The lady offers a spare room with a comfortable bed for thee tonight, an' a barn by the side for the horses, with a warm dry loft above for Jonesy 'n' me to bed down. A groat a night for the lot of us, she says, or one-an'-six for the week. And, my Lord, she 'as a mutton stew on't parlour fire what smells like it wus heaven sent!"

Ferdinando sniffs, conscious that this is proving a habit, and decides to decline the spinster's offer, although he hears a voice inside his head, curiously, that of a young woman's, speaks to him, 'come in and save me, only thee can save me' over and over again, like a mantra. The Judge shakes his head at his foolish thoughts, yelling for the coach to move onto the Manor Hall.

The Hall is completely in darkness, beyond a smooth and serviceable gravel drive up to the front door. He descends from the coach, while Handley raps the handle of his whip on the front door. No answer.

The Hall is closed fast and no one opens, even in the King's name, while Lord Ferdinando Briant's name announced to the fastened door cuts even less ice.

From inside the Hall, a woman finally speaks in harsh tones, thick with the local Sussex accent and muffled by the thick wooden door, and tells him to "Bugger off, there be no one enterin' this house at dead o' night, no matter who 'ee says 'ee be!"

The girl's voice, the same young woman he heard inside his head at the white cottage, says to him, 'come back to the cottage, all will be well, trust in me, Nando, trust in me.'

No one had called him Nando for more than fifty years, it took his mind back to the West Country, to a different time, of warm pleasant unhurried summers and the contented buzzing of bees, and memories of another loving housekeeper, Anna, who cared for him on his long road to recovery, almost a whole lifetime ago.

Ferdinando decides to return to the white cottage.

Handley, the senior coachman, grins when given his instruction, remembering, the Judge has little doubt, the mutton stew aforementioned. It would be rude fare and a rough billet no doubt, Ferdinando thinks, but a warm welcome was preferable to the present stalemate outside the darkened Hall.

Ferdinando steps from the coach immediately it returns to the cottage, its painted whiteness glowing in the rising moon on his stride up to the front door. The cottage's thatch roof looks serviceable from what he can make out in the rising moon. He peers through the cottage window, where a cheery fire could be seen blazing in a snug parlour within. Having heard his coach's return, the lady of the house has opened the front door, standing straight, tall and slim, framed dark and featureless with the light behind her in her doorway, surrounded by climbing roses in full late summer bloom. Well, he thinks, here's a promised welcome, so why not stay here?

"Welcome, my Lord Chief Justice," she says in a soft warm voice, cultured, but with a charming hint of the Sussex burr which had otherwise sounded so alien and coarse on the lips of the Manor Hall's housekeeper. She stands aside and, with a gesture in the form of a low waving hand, welcomes him into her home, then waving high to the coachmen to enter the kitchen around the side of the cottage. "Come to the back door when you are ready to eat," she entreats Handley and Jones, "there be water already set out for you in the barn to wash. So, my Lord, you find no welcome at the Hall?"

"Aye, you were correct, Madam, no welcome was forthcoming," Ferdinando replies as he enters the cottage, into the cosy front parlour, "I feel a cheery invitation more preferable to an unwanted intrusion, besides, I have no wish to be influenced in my judgements by close association with parties involved in this curious happenstance."

"Ah," she smiles, "in that case you might wish to reconsider staying here, my Lord. I confess I am the mother of the man accused of some unstated wrong, the Headman of our little Borough, Benjamin fforde. Although I have no wish to influence your judgement in this matter, I do believe every uttered word from my son, and always have done during his upbringing."

"I see," Ferdinando nods gravely, the aroma from the wholesome mutton stew already filling his nostrils, "I applaud your open honesty, Madam, but, between you and I, I have already eliminated any lingering suspicions of guilt on your horseless Headman Mister Benjamin fforde's part. We have sworn affidavits that state your son was fast asleep when Sir Valentine went mad, and upon waking was commendably fearless in defending his Master's person from harm by his similarly possessed tenants."

"I see. Then, my relationship being no undue impediment to your stay, I will show you to your room, my Lord, where a basin and jug awaits you to refresh yourself after your journey, while I serve the bread and stew to your servants."

She leads the way up a dark staircase, onto a spacious landing, where a single fat candle burns on a side table. From there she guides him through a doorway to a comfortable bedchamber to the left of the house, which has a window looking onto the village green and a second casement facing east, where she promises the early morning light would see him wake refreshed.

"Alas, Madam, my skin has a complaint since childhood, that is sensitive to bright daylight. I fear I will have to draw the curtains against the dawn."

The woman seems to examine his poor ravaged face, pockmarked and painfully reddened either side of his axe-like beak, a visage fit to place fear into accused innocents and pump mortal dread into the guilty. Yet she smiles pleasantly at him and nods. "The curtains are thick and lined, my Lord, I'm sure you'll be perfectly comfortable here."

The room was indeed warm, a cosy log fire, recently lit in the grate, already chasing away the cold damp of the evening which had begun to settle on his ancient bones.

Once alone, he removes his powdered wig and vigorously scratches his close-shorn head, his hair as grey as wire wool. Loosening his tight collar, he regards the sideboard upon which two thin candles are lit either side of a silvery mirror. He is too familiar with his careworn face and sharply beaked nose, every part the image of the hanging judge of lore, to consider the mirror's use, he muses. He laughs, his wrinkle lines softening, his smile transforming his face from cruel judge to kindly grandfather, although he be without any progeny, fully aware that he would never have any no matter how long he dwelleth upon this mortal earth.

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