Charlie spark villain.., p.16
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       Charlie Spark - Villain Extraordinaire, p.16

           J M S Macfarlane
 

  "I say, are you quite certain you saw him ? Where exactly did he go ?" enquired Lord Loathbery. His horse was surrounded by a troupe of hounds tired of the whole event. Some had settled down and dozed off to sleep ; the rest were biting and scratching their flea-infested hides or each other.

  Bentley was wheeling his horse around in the nearby field without success. Charles' sighting appeared to be worth following, probably because there was nothing else to do. Sir Harry gave his associate a wide eyed glance as if to say "I've spent better days catching flies in my cell at Lewes (Prison)," or at least that was how it was interpreted.

  With a flap of his whip in the air, Piers abruptly tore off into the distance, spurring and shrieking at his horse, working up to a full gallop. A wave in the air meant Amanda Teece was to follow him.

  It was evident that Spark's ruse had come off well, as attested by various shrugs and raised eyebrows. In the meantime, the fox could find a comfortable burrow far away from them and put his feet up while the addle-headed riders and hounds searched in the fields trying to pick up the scent.

  By this stage, the threat of rain had passed and the sun was shining warmly down from a pale blue sky ; like the riders below them, the clouds floated aimlessly along wherever the wind took them.

  The rest of the party set off together at a slow canter, seeing that the urgency of pursuing the fox with the full pack of hounds rollicking along, had now been dissipated.

  Charlie Spark looked at his watch : it was almost mid-day. He felt around in his pocket and discovered it was caked in butter, mustard and bacon grease but undeterred he pieced together the remnants of bread and bacon to satisfy his hunger.

  And as for Sir Harry, as he’d predicted all along, it had become a magnificently silly day with each swig of brandy from his hip flask. Already, he'd put to the back of his mind, the worries pestering him – the purpose of their quest ; Spark's lunatic exposure of the scheme ; and that he’d snatch the loot as soon as it was bagged. For the time being, the mellowness of the countryside was working its charm : everything else could go and rot.

  Chapter 41

  Piers Shows How It’s Done

  The horses were snorting and tossing their heads, enjoying the canter across the open countryside and through the fields of lucern.

  Gradually, the riders drew close to a set of woods known as the Lashings. The villagers said that at equinox and full moon, bloodcurdling screams could be heard in the greenery ; some of them swore that a witches coven gathered there. But the publican of the Old Mole pub said that it was only the hermit who had lived in the Lashings for twenty years and who survived on the wild game he caught there.

  The truth was no-one knew who or what inhabited the woods or what goings-on took place. The villagers ignored not only the woods, but also the poll tax demands they received but made use of them in their outhouses.

  Suddenly, a cry of alarm was heard that the fox was retreating into the woods to evade the riders and hounds. Trundler and Yelper sent up an awful cry, announcing they’d recovered the scent and the entire pack went full tilt, straight into the undergrowth.

  At first, Amanda was reticent to lead her show jumper any further ; the darkened greenery seemed threatening. The bankers laughed off her concerns and offered to lead the way. They'd heard all the old wives' tales in the pub of spirits, hooded figures and moonlit shadows – those were the ravings of eccentrics.

  Some of them entered the woods in one direction while Bentley rode ahead of the pack down a second path as the hounds scattered in a disorganised rabble over a wide area of trees and bushes which they found of interest.

  In contrast, Lord Loathbery's face betrayed no outward concern as he edged his gelding between the trees and into the undergrowth of bushes, heading in an easterly direction on his own. The hounds, with the abundance of tree trunks around them, dispersed over a wide area, forgetting their pursuit of the fox.

  As the others entered the forest, they could see that most of it was ancient woodlands. Spark imagined that in Norman times, serfs had hidden there from the robber barons demanding tithes. Not much had changed.

  There was a sense of expectation in the air. Lord Ruffer, Lady Birch and some other riders stuck together as a group and the men uncorked their hip flasks.

  "Blimey," whispered Charlie Spark as his horse drew level with Sir Harry and the Bolter, "this place is as dark as the black hole o’ Calcutta."

  Sir Harry agreed, given that the dense canopy of trees allowed excellent target practise for squadrons of pigeons (and rooks) with hardly any sunlight entering from above.

  The squawk of Bentley's hunting horn could be heard, way into the distance but no-one had seen him for some time.

  "Well, he must have overtaken us somehow, by going round to the far end.." posited Lady Birch. Her face was crimson as she huffed and puffed in the saddle.

  Sir Harry offered her some brandy as they heard Bentley's horn give out another screech further along the trail they were following. Immediately, the hounds left their wanderings and rallied to the summons.

  From somewhere, a long way ahead of them and out of ear-shot, Piers Loathbery called to them : "Good Lord. I've just seen the fox. This is where he is. Quick, quick, all of you. Oh, where are the hounds, where are they ? They should be digging him out of his hole, the rascal."

  With the greatest will, no one could hear him clearly or make out where he was or where the fox was or what had become of Bentley or Trimmer and Sniffer and the rest of the pack.

  The playwright, stage producer and some other City types decided they should scout ahead to try and locate Bentley and Lord Loathbery and turn up the fox's trail again. The producer was already tired of the event and viewed country pursuits to be overrated, expensive, uncomfortable and tedious. (Audiences thought the same of his plays, musicals and theatre productions.)

  While the others wandered off, in directions wherever their horses led them, Piers Loathbery was meandering in the undergrowth on the far side of the woods. A few minutes earlier, he'd sworn that the fox's red and white brush had dived into the brambles concealing its lair.

  Smashing at the trees and bushes with his whip, he was certain the fox had scooted into its hole. Slowly, he led his horse to the spot where the animal had taken refuge.

  After taking a swig from his flask, he could see from high up in the saddle that a burrow had been dug beneath some bracken and blackberry bushes. From under the leaves, two little eyes were peering steadfastly out of the darkness.

  “So, there you are,” he thought to himself.

  As a sportsman and gambler, he wanted to win. And before him, was the prize of the fox's brush and the honour of taking it for the hunt.

  All around him was silent. There was no sign of the hounds or any of the others – the trophy was his for the taking. He imagined his health being drunk ; he would be lauded by the huntsmen, guests, villagers and locals as a true sportsman.

  Slowly he dismounted, leaving the reins of his horse to straggle in the dirt, then crept up to the hole, from which the animal was watching for intruders. Kneeling down, he could clearly see the little creature’s eyes in the darkness staring fixedly out at him. Rather a ticklish job, he thought, trying to catch this fellow but he's finally met his match. He would entice the fox out, grab his head and quickly throttle him.

  He thought it would be easier to coax the fox with a piece of bread and cheese which he'd taken with him after breakfast and so he threw the morsels onto the ground, just in front of the lair but the animal didn't move.

  "Need some encouragement, do you ?" said Piers to the fox. "Come on, old chap...I'm not going to hurt you...much…..here's some nice blue stilton for you...come on now," but still there was no movement. It was clear, some persuasion was needed and he picked up the cheese and held it between his fingers at the front of the burrow, almost under what appeared to be the fox's nose.

  What followed was a fairly pavlovian reaction : three of his fingers
felt as if they'd been skewered on red hot spikes ; tearing his hand away at the speed of light, his eyes almost popped out of his head as he discovered in the midst of bloody screams and shrieks for help that the little eyes in fact belonged to an enraged two foot badger which snarled venomously as it refused to unclamp its jaws from around his hand as it jumped and wriggled with sharp claws flailing in all directions.

  What a predicament for a fellow to be in.

  Overcome by excruciating pain, he tried to prise the badger's jaws open and to shake it off but the animal was firmly locked on when nothing short of an anaesthetic was needed to sedate it and wedge open its teeth. To make matters worse, as he was trying to get it off his hand, it tore a gash across his other hand and lashed out at his coat and trousers.

  In the middle of his screams of agony (which frightened off his horse) and cries and curses for someone to save him, he somehow fumbled for his hip flask with his free but bleeding hand, thinking to bump the badger on the head and knock it out. In the same instant, as he held the animal thrashing about at arm's length, it suddenly struck him that the brandy might suffice for anaesthetic so he poured a stream into the badger's mouth which caused it to turn into something resembling a volcanic highland wildcat.

  Fortunately, after a few more minutes of unendurable and insidious pain when he felt as if he was going to faint, the badger stopped flailing about, gave out a grunt as if to say, "That'll teach you..." and after dropping off his hand onto the ground, waddled off sideways to resume its position at the entrance to its burrow.

  His hands were dripping blood and after dousing his bitten fingers and scratched hands with brandy, he tied up his wounds very tightly, using a large spotted handkerchief for his bitten fingers and for his left hand, a piece of material torn off his riding jacket. His horse was nowhere to be seen and there was nothing for it but to retreat out of the accursed woods, consult some local sawbones and then get blind drunk to forget the entire sordid episode.

  While Piers was making his way back to the Manor House, the other hunt members were lost including Amanda Teece. Her horse had ambled further into the woods, ignoring her efforts to turn it around and after half an hour, had stopped at a stream to drink.

  "You ain't lost atall, are yer, miss ?" came a voice from nowhere.

  Amanda was petrified and sat rigid in her saddle, too shocked to reply.

  The voice assured her not to be afraid and from out of the bushes stepped a tall, thin man, dressed in rags with long silver hair and a beard down to his chest.

  "I'm Tom Tindley – I live 'ere," he said, pointing all around him and down at a large wooden barrel on which the staves had turned rusty brown and the outside was moss green.

  "Like a cup o' cha ?" he asked. " 'Fraid it's only blackb'ry and elder leaves but 'oi loikes et."

  As she was by now saddle sore and bruised and also of an inquisitive nature, she accepted the invitation. After tethering her horse, she clambered into the barrel which was surprisingly warm and dry and heated by a kindling fire in front. Over the fire, sat a cast iron pot on one side and a spit of roast meat on the other.

  "Ooh, how cosy," she said. "So, are you the hermit of the woods everyone is afraid of ?"

  "Heh, heh….yair....those villagers – they’re head cases alright."

  And they passed the next three hours over roast venison and herbal tea comparing how each of them couldn't possibly live as the other did.

  Chapter 42

  The Villains In the State Room

  Back at the Manor House, after the hunt had disappeared across the fields, Griffey and Valenti entered the building dressed as servants and let in the rest of the gang who were in workmen’s overalls. With the Scotsman leading them, they made their way to the State Room on the pretext that they were fumigating borers in the woodwork.

  After some strange looks from a few of the servants and the guests who had stayed behind, they found the State Room, picked the lock on the door and then secured it when they were all inside. The fireplace was swung across and an inspection of the vault began with measurements taken from every angle, levers and dials identified and noted, the hardness of the steel assessed and the dimensions of the door measured along with the foundations.

  After half an hour of deliberations and exchanging views and theories, the experts among them were agreed that they couldn’t make head nor tail of the design and that for all they knew, half a ton of explosive mightn't be enough to loosen the door but could end up demolishing the east wing and setting fire to the rest of the building.

  After a vote, it was decided that one of them would have to spy on the Loathberys to find out the combination to the vault or the time when the automatic mechanism unlocked itself. How that was to be done and by whom, was fiercely argued over – but it was also overheard in the corridor outside by one of the hacks doubling as a servant. In a panic, he ran from the corridor outside to the nearest concealed vodka bottle in order to steady his nerves and decide what to do about this new turn of events.

  Chapter 43

  The Hunters At Play

  Although he was an expert horseman, having learned to ride on mules at prep school, the stage director had had a terrible time controlling his horse.

  Since leaving the Manor House, the nag had been bothersome, clopping along diagonally instead of going straight and trying to get him out of the saddle by rubbing itself against trees. It also liked to turn its head occasionally to nip him on the legs. And now it was presented with a splendid opportunity to practise all of this in the woods which brought the director untold cuts and bruises in the process.

  "You excuse for a glue pot. You broken-down donkey. Stop this, get away there. Whoa there, whoa I say," the director could be heard yelling at the nag. No amount of prodding with heels or flicks of the whip could persuade it. After almost two hours of being flayed and mangled, as soon as they were alone in the woods, he sprang out of the saddle and to avoid any embarrassing scene, ran off into the bushes where he crouched down, tenderly rubbing his wounds and with the horse looking at him wondering what was going on, he lifted his cap, sneered at the horse and said "There. You've won. Now, get away."

  Elsewhere in the woods, Lord Ruffer was exasperated with the pace of the hunt and was steadily moving his hack through the trees and undergrowth, looking for the way to the Manor House. What he hadn't noticed were two pairs of shapely legs high above him, swinging playfully from the branch of a tree. At the same time, the owners of the dangling pins were aiming a large catapult at his horse's flanks. Careful aim was taken, with the pebble drawn back as far as it could go and then a piercing blow was delivered like a wasp's sting (if the horse had been asked about it).

  As Ruffer later described, nothing is quite so unexpected as finding yourself in the saddle of a nag which suddenly rears up in the air and tears away madly, as if re-enacting the last cavalry charge of the British Army at Omdurman, with trees and branches flying past within a hair's breadth and the horse's legs stumbling over molehills and the uneven ground.

  Such was his fate as he clung onto reins and mane and being so small in the saddle, was strapped to the horse like a circus monkey, the wind unwinding his scarf as the horse galloped out of the Lashings across several farmers’ fields, some ploughed and some fallow, for the next eight miles. People in cars on the motorway slip-road, pointed and laughed at his fancy dress ; small boys shouted questions at him ; ramblers swore after him ; a policeman on his bicycle pedalled like fury to catch up with him but quickly ran out of breath.

  Eventually, the hack came to rest at an encampment next to a quarry occupied by four caravans and some rusty farming implements. Two men and a woman were having tea by an open fire. The woman was cleaning some antique china and porcelain. One of the men strummed on his guitar and whined out a mournful song ; the other man was listening, thinking and smoking his pipe.

  The man with the pipe looked up matter of factly and said "Look there, mother, it's old Blackie back again. Oh
dear, whatever shall we do with him ?"

  Unbeknown to Ruffer or the stable manager at the Manor House who had purchased ‘Old Blackie’ for Lord Loathbery, the horse had deserted its previous six owners to return to the travellers who ‘found’ him as a foal in an empty field. It was their practice to explain this whenever the horse re-appeared.

  Although Ruffer was touched by their tears and kisses to the horse's head, he said he couldn’t allow it to stay because it didn't belong to him. In response, the man with the guitar struck up a spirited Romany song which translated as : "Run away now, run away quickly, our little horse will always stay with us."

  Back in the Lashings, the hunt saboteurs, comprising people of all ages and occupations from nearby Weldon and from as far away as Scotland, had been shadowed by the police but continued to follow the hunt in their cars and on foot. When they saw that the riders were in the Lashings, they dispersed and battle lines were drawn. Pepper had been sprinkled from high up in the trees, giving some of the hounds sneezing fits. Many of them were yowling, rubbing their noses in the dirt and rolling in the bushes.

  Lady Birch’s horse had somehow turned up alongside Helmut Schwager. She didn’t like him and thought he was a know-all ; Schwager thought that she was eccentric or senile or both. But there was no denying that they were hopelessly lost. They knew that they'd passed the same spot earlier but had no idea how to locate the fields next to the woods. Neither of them knew how they'd ended up together. Yet, it was the fault of their horses who were in love with each other and were stable-mates.

  Schwager complained that the trail they had chosen was leading nowhere ; he was saddle-sore and his corns which were unfailing weather-vanes, signalled that it would bucket down any moment. They had to find a way out of the woods before the storm broke or they might become trapped.

 
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