The first chapter of the first novel in Deborah Grabien 's Haunted
Ballad series, The Weaver and The Factory Maid
Unite and unite and let us all unite
For summer is a-coming today.
(from "Padstow Mayday")
On a bright Saturday afternoon in Cornwall, the Padstow Mayday Celebration was in full swing.
The musical part of the annual festivities had begun the previous afternoon. Musicians, many of whom hadn't met since last year's event, swapped arrangements, slandered their record companies, or gossiped. Costumed morris dancers entertained the crowd, who danced through the streets after the brightly painted Hobby Horse. The weather was warm, soft, and breezy. There was also beer, cheap and plentiful. An all-around sense of contentment pervaded the air.
Still, nothing's perfect. Three musicians, members of the Broomfield Hill Quartet, were not enjoying themselves as much as they would have liked.
"Hasn't anyone heard from Ringan?"
Jane Castle's famous three-octave voice was sounding shrill. Since the tiny singer was as well-known for her serenity as she was for her vocal range, her two companions were taking notice.
"I've told you twice, love, not since yesterday." Liam McCall, six feet five and rail-thin, flitted around the dusty room in Padstow's Institute like a nervous moth, picking up his fiddle and setting it down again. As if punctuating his reply to Jane, he took up the instrument and plucked a few notes, banjo style. He then glared at it, muttered "American hillbilly tunes, oh hell" and put it back in its case.
"Oh, leave the damned fiddle alone, can't you?" Liam's restlessness seemed to irritate Jane past endurance. "For heaven's sake, Liam, must you putter?"
"I like to putter." He looked at Jane. "Shall I say it again, then? Four times lucky, maybe? He rang up to say there was a problem with this house he's been working on, and could we swap times with one of the other groups, and he'd be here this evening. All right? Got it all clear now?"
"So we've swapped with Martin and Dave. I know that." If anything, Jane's voice had gone a bit higher. She said peevishly, "Why does he want to muck about with other people's houses in the middle of the bloody Festival, anyway?"
"Because he doesn't fancy starving for his art." Liam's restless eye lit on a half-full pint glass of the local ale, abandoned by someone else hours earlier. He grabbed it, gulped, and winced. As the others watched, he muttered, "Flat as a pancake and not mine anyway, sorry," and set it down. Wiping his mouth with the back of one hand, he added in a fair-minded way, "Can't blame him, can you?"
"I bloody well can blame him!" Since Jane knew that playing traditional music in the modern world was a highly unreliable method of bill-paying, this was unfair. Liam opened his mouth to blister her, but was forestalled.
"He'll get here. When has Ringan ever missed a gig?" Matty Curran offered a sleepy smile. "Stop fretting, Jane. it'll be fine. It's not as if he's got far to come."
"I forgot, he's not in London." She looked relieved. Matty Curran had that effect on people. "Near Glastonbury, isn't he? Only a few hours' driving."
"Less than that, the way Ringan drives." Matty, large and placid, rested his heels on his accordion case. "And Martin said he and Dave would be glad to switch set times with us. So we don't go on until half nine tonight. Dave said something about an arrangement of "Padstow Mayday" they want to try. Nice of them, all things considered."
"Opportunistic of them, all things considered."
"Well, it's Mayday, isn't it? And we're in Padstow. And, as I recall, they've got a new CD to promote." Jane let her breath out. "Sorry. I didn't mean to go all hysterical at you. I'm sure Ringan will get here in plenty of time."
"Too right he will." Liam grabbed his violin and moved toward the door. "Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and with the grand guitar Lord Randall in hand. Let's go down the pub while it's still licensing hours. Jane can buy me a pint."
The others followed, Jane pausing long enough to ask, "Why me?"
"Why not?" Liam said simply, and headed for the street.
* * *
At about the time that Liam was juggling three pint glasses toward a table in a Padstow pub, Rupert Darnley Laine, known as Ringan, was facing the Right Honourable Albert Wychsale, the man who had hired him to help renovate the family's Somerset manor. Albert Wychsale, the current Baron Boult, had just given Ringan a piece of very unwelcome news. And Ringan was not taking it well at all.
"What do you mean, you can't pay me?"
Ringan's voice, which held strong overtones of a Scots burr, was downright warlike. It reminded Wychsale of things like Macbeth and the Glencoe massacre. And surely the study was no place for blue-jeans, or for a shabby guitar case with "C.F. Martin & Co." stencilled on it. In the serene room, a pugnacious Scots musician was a disharmonious element.
The backdrop for this tension was charming. The study was a large, airy room, set like a jewel in Wychsale House, a gracious Queen Anne manor between Baltonsborough and Glastonbury. The study was sunlit and welcoming. Enter, it seemed to say, and sit in one of these exquisite wing chairs designed by George Hepplewhite. Drink a brandy, cross your legs, admire the vistas across the terrace and landscaped gardens. Listen to the distant murmur of the River Brue or of its tributary, the Carlyon. Rest, or remember past glories, or dream of fishing and England and a good long nap. It was a dignified room, mellowed with time, poorly suited for tension; which, at the moment, was what it was getting.
Albert Wychsale cleared his throat unhappily. "I'm afraid you misunderstood me."
"Oh, did I, now."
The Scots burr seemed to thicken as Ringan got angrier. Wychsale, sixtyish and a bit on the portly side, abandoned thoughts of Glencoe and envisioned instead little naked blue-painted savages, lunching on their enemies. He picked his words very carefully. "I didn't say I couldn't pay you for your work, Mr. Laine. I merely said I couldn't pay you in cash at this point in time."
Ringan's jaw, thrust forward so that his black beard jutted at a dangerous angle, did not relax. Despite the fact that he was actually smaller than his erstwhile employer, he somehow looked larger. "That sounds like a statement of non-payment to me. We signed a contract, remember? Before I sank three months of my time, plus expenses, into restoring your property."
"Mr. Laine, if you would just-"
Ringan cut him off, waving a hand toward the surface of the writing table that suddenly seemed, in Wychsale's eyes, a very flimsy barrier between them. "A copy of the invoice is on your desk. It's completely itemised. You signed off on it yesterday. You owe me seventy eight hundred quid."
"Yes, yes, I know that." Wychsale mopped his brow. He didn't know what upset him more, the confrontation with the angry Scot or the Scot's evident belief that Wychsale meant to cheat him. "Let me assure you, Mr. Laine, I have every intention of paying you. I can pay you this moment, if you'd like; in fact, I was going to suggest a way to do it, but the situation is a bit odd. There's a comfortable chair behind you. If you'd just sit down and let me explain?"
"I know there's a chair. I found the chairs and ordered them for you, remember? And I'll stand, thank you."
"Certainly. Whatever you choose." Wychsale took a deep breath and plunged in headlong. "In a nutshell, the problem is this. Three days ago, I asked my broker to liquidate the shares I hold in a well-known North Sea energy consortium. For cashflow purposes."
Ringan wasn't giving an inch. "So?"
"So, I heard from my broker this morning. He informed me that the company whose shares I was planning to sell has gone into bankruptcy. It's been seized by the government, and all assets frozen. I'm assuming you haven't seen the financial news today." Wychsale hated being forced to explain; fifteen generations of landed English gentry had gone into making him. Landed gentry didn't usually have to explain to the hired help. "And since I have three other loans out, all of which I'd been securing with those shares, my liquid cash just vanished into limbo until this mess gets sorted out. The sorting-out could take months. This isn't just big-money interests, either. It's going to have a ripple effect that hits everything in the financial world and beyond. This is a big one, Mr. Laine, a catastrophic crash of a huge company. And it honestly isn't my fault. No one seems to have seen it coming, not even the board of directors."
There was a long silence. Wychsale, who had been looking everywhere except at Ringan, glanced up and made a discovery. Ringan no longer looked militant. He looked worried. In fact, he looked so worried that Wychsale asked a stupid question. "Is something the matter, Mr. Laine?"
"You said an energy consortium. A North Sea energy consortium." Ringan sounded worried, too. "Do me a huge favour and tell me it isn't the Three Towers syndicate."
"I could tell you that," Wychsale said. "But I'd be lying. Three Towers it is."
Ringan looked around him, discovered one of the Hepplewhite chairs, and sank into it as though his legs had stopped working. The black beard was limp; the flesh around his mouth had gone an unhealthy blue-white.
"Mr. Laine?" Wychsale, at heart a decent man, forgot his nervousness and came around the writing table. "Good heavens, are you all right?"
"Oh, I'm fine," Ringan said bitterly. "I'm just too wonderful for words. My mother won't be, though. Most of her income, about ninety percent of it in fact, comes from her shares in that bloody company. Which means that I'm going to have to cough up a nice bit of my already paltry income to help her out. Damn, damn, bloody double sweating damn!"
"Oh, dear." Beneath his genuine concern, Wychsale felt a flicker of relief. This little development might just make Laine more amenable to the admittedly peculiar solution Wychsale was planning to propose. "I'm so sorry. If it's any consolation, quite a lot of people are probably feeling pretty sick right now."
"I'm sure they are. But I'm not consoled." Ringan met his eyes and said sourly, "All right, Mr. Wychsale. I'm obviously over a barrel, so let's put the cards on the table. You mentioned a suggestion for paying me right now. Let's hear it."
"Of course, of course." The battle, Wychsale thought, was pretty well won. "As I said, I can't pay you in cold cash. And since Wychsale House is entailed, tied property, I'm forbidden to sell any of it to raise money. But there is one thing I could do. You told me that you live in a rented flat in London. What I have in mind is simply this..."
He proceeded to explain. With every word, Ringan Laine felt a bit better.