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JBWB WINTER 2004 SHORT STORY COMPETITION THIRD PRIZE

The Keeper of Secrets

 

by Harry Woods

 

Email: harry@hrwoods.worldonline.co.uk

Suddenly I was awake in the darkness. Something was touching me. I kept my eyes tight shut. Didn't move. Didn't breathe.

'William. William.' Whispering. I knew the voice.

I sat up, squinting at a tiny flame. Old John the verger was leaning over me, his hand cupped around the crackling, tallow torch. His baggy eyes and sloppy mouth were bobbing about in the dancing light, his wispy hair trailing like smoke about his head.

'Get up, William. Get up.' He was whispering, yet shouting: his voice torn away to the storm outside my tiny window.

I was fourteen years old that night in May, in the year 1649. Big for my age, they said, and a sturdy lad. My mother had died when I was a baby. My father had no name. So I lived alone up in the church tower in Burford, twenty miles from Oxford.

Old John had been there all my life. People said he was a strange, mysterious figure. A Keeper of Secrets. But at this moment I could see the shadow of his frightened face jumping, long and thin, across the wall, near my bed.

'Hurry, now. Across to Ma Shirley in the pie-shop. Cromwell's men are here.'

Oliver Cromwell. A cold feeling. The name floated on fear around the village. A monster, somebody said. A murderer, said another.

I pushed away my smelly old mantle and rolled onto the floor, shoving my shirt down into my breeches. Across to the tight spiral stairway, down into the church. I was always careful on these steps, but now, stumbling in the blackness, I bumped again and again against the twisting wall and fell hard against the stone arch at the bottom. My knees and elbows were scraped and sore; my toes were cut and bleeding.

The noise downstairs was thunder in my ears, and my eyes began to burn from the musket smoke. Near Harman's old Monument in the west wing, I could see the red coats of Cromwell's soldiers lashing out with swords and sticks. They were forcing a group of men towards the font below the stained-glass window, shouting and swearing, cruelly kicking anybody who stumbled.

These men must be 'Levellers', I thought. Reverend Glynn, the vicar, had said they'd once been in Cromwell's army, but they'd turned against him. He'd become a ruthless man who believed he was more important than the King. And he was a Puritan who believed he could do no wrong, because God was his guide.

I was to go across to Ma Shirley's, but I was so frightened, I couldn't think properly.

I pressed myself against the wall as something heavy hit my foot, and rolled a helmet. The soldier was staggering about in front of me. His tunic was torn, the sleeve swinging. Blood was running down his face. Then he saw me. He thought I'd done it!

I turned to run, but my feet wouldn't move!

A hand grabbed my arm - it was the vicar. His kind face was terrified; his gentle, blue eyes were wide behind his wire spectacles.

'Please don't hurt the boy,' he said, but the soldier roughly knocked him aside, caught my collar. I cried with pain as he banged my head hard back against the wall.

'Leave him go,' commanded a different voice - a voice I knew, but stronger. Old John stepped from behind me, dressed in the long, dark coat he always wore outside church. 'I said, leave him go, Major.'

I held my breath. The officer's eyes narrowed as he looked at Old John, whose face was now as hard as stone, his eyes like ice. The Major took his hand from my collar, picked up his helmet and walked away.

I looked at John; but he'd gone. Had that really happened?

'Vicar...' I turned to Rev Glynn, but he held up his hand. 'Go outside, William.'

I went quickly, slipping and falling over broken furniture. I held my hands out, touching the stone columns to guide me through the smoke to the pulpit. Broken prayer-seats were scattered under my feet; two of the carved wooden candlesticks I cleaned every day now smashed to pieces.

I reached the north door - then stopped. The body of a soldier was lying in the entrance. Blood on his face was turning black and hard. I stared down at him: the only dead people I'd seen before had been old folk or babies, at funerals in the church.

My heart pounded as I stepped over him and lifted the latch out into the dark graveyard. The sudden wind ripped the heavy door from my fingers and threw me against the wall.

It wasn't yet dawn's light, but Burford was almost as bright as day. Through the hedge, I could see huge bonfires, the flames leaping and roaring wildly as the strong gusts tossed and turned down the high street. The Bear Inn was a blazing torch. People were rushing about, shouting, splashing everywhere with pails of water. And Ma Shirley's pie-shop next door was alight.

Now I had nowhere to go.

Everything was changed for me now. A terrible mess. My tears burned hot as I sat in the drizzle on the cold gravestones, trying not to believe what I knew was real. But I was afraid I might be seen by the soldiers standing a few paces from me; watching the fire, but not helping.

What's Cromwell doing? I wondered. Do brutal people ever think of the folks they hurt?

Somebody was coming, so I stepped back into shadow. I breathed a silent Thank you, God when I saw the vicar, looking for me. But in a second he was gone: two figures from the darkness had seized him. Where he had been standing, I was startled to see Old John. He put his finger to his lips, then beckoned to me. We hurried back into the church.

The chancel was silent. The soldier's body had gone. As quiet as ghosts, we crept towards the nave where we could hear the murmur of voices against the shrieking wind and the hiss of the rain outside. The Levellers were prisoners now, sitting or lying about, bound with ropes. Some were badly wounded, moaning now and then. A small group of soldiers was standing watching them.

I felt myself trembling. 'I don't like this, John. Let's go,' I whispered. He nodded, and we turned round - straight into red tunics behind us. The soldiers motioned us back, the way we'd come.

I could see blood, thickening now between the stone floor-tiles, and spots drying on the walls. Then I spotted the Rev Glynn, lying against the pulpit, his cassock crimson with blood. His eyes were closed and his face was grey and ill. I struggled to go to him, but John held me, his grip tight as a claw on my shoulder. But his eyes were fixed straight ahead.

A thickset, long-haired man in a very grand uniform was standing with his back to us. His
long, leather coat and high, black boots were spick and span, as though he hadn't done any
fighting. He turned, glanced at us, then turned away. Then he stopped and looked back. His
mouth opened, as if to speak. Shall I hold them, General?' said one of the soldiers.

Cromwell - I knew right away who it was - shook his head.

Without a word, John turned and dragged me away, pushing aside the soldiers. My old friend was now so strong: I had never felt so safe.

Outside again, we went quickly to the sexton's tool shed. John pushed back his cowl. 'Stay here, William. Keep hidden until I come back. Don't leave for any reason.' Then he was gone into the flickering darkness.

I waited and waited. My bare feet felt like blocks of ice in the mud, and the rain was stinging my face in the sharpening wind. I stood back in the tiny shed as two soldiers appeared. They wanted shelter too, so I slipped away. Where could I go now? John would expect to find me here when he returned.

I felt sure he'd gone back into the church, so I went after him. Keeping close to the wall, I opened the door, gripping it tightly in the wind. The church was almost black inside now, as the lamps were out. I crossed to the pulpit - perhaps I could speak to Rev Glynn. I could see him in the gloom, lying in the same spot, quiet, still.

Vicar.' My voice as low as I could. 'Vicar. It's William.' I reached out, touched him in the darkness - then shrank back. His hands were freezing. My searching fingers found his mouth: wide open in the ice-cold face. He was dead. I fell back, biting my shaking fingers, screaming inside my head.

I lay still until my trembling calmed.

Men were talking, I realised; quietly, somewhere near. I listened for a while, then crawled towards the voices. Hardly daring to breathe, I stopped beneath the arch into the east-wing. In the feeble moonlight through the stained-glass window, I could see the figure of Cromwell sitting against the wall. And - I blinked with shock, then looked again - facing him was Old John. I couldn't hear what was being said, but they seemed to be arguing.

They fell silent for a moment, and I began, very slowly, to stand up. But I froze when Cromwell rose to his feet, his sword scraping the rough tiles.

'I did what I had to do.' His voice was louder now in the hollow hall. 'And that's an end to it.'

John's voice rose too, strong, defiant. 'But the vicar? You didn't have to kill him.'

Cromwell raised his hand against further words. 'I'm leaving now. If I see you and the boy again, I will have to act. You know that. So, keep the secret, John, and hold to the task I gave you those years ago. Nobody must ever know about the boy.' He walked toward my hiding place and then stopped. He was so close to me in the shadows I could feel his warmth. He looked back. 'You have money enough for his future years?' John waved a hand in reply, and Cromwell left. I went cold for a second, sure that John had caught sight of me, but the moment passed.

I returned to the old shed. Empty now. I waited for John, until I fell asleep. But he didn't come.

In the morning, I went to my little job in the bakery, through the orchard, by the river.

I was there three days, as usual, working until after dark. When I was tired I just flopped down amongst the flour sacks. Mice, rats and cockroaches were never far away, running over me while I slept, I knew that; but I was always dead to the world. But I had plenty to eat - and the ovens were always warm. When my rest-days came, I went back to the church.

As I crossed the orchard, I could see the prisoners being taken away, many of them bandaged - torn-up rags, really - dried blood sticking on their clothes and in their hair.

Everything was hushed: just the smell of burning, the sound of shuffling feet and the thud of crutches. Some of the townsfolk had come to watch, but nobody spoke. It seemed to me that many people felt sympathy for these 'Levellers', but were afraid lest the soldiers saw them being too friendly.

I walked around to the graveyard, where our old sexton was leaning on his spade, next to three new mounds of earth

'They all died since I've been away, Jim?'

He nodded, his wise old eyes watching the prisoners. 'Them's "Levellers," he said softly. 'They's been shot. Bullet holes over there.' He jerked a thumb towards the church wall. 'They tried to tell Cromwell where to get off, see - and that's what's happened to 'em. What'd happen to anyone, I reckon, who said too much.'

He pointed past me. 'I think you're wanted, William.'

I turned. The long coat, its cowl up, was facing away from me.

I ran across. 'John, where have you been?'

He turned, looked at me. 'He's gone,' he said simply. 'Pray God he never returns.'

I looked into his eyes. 'But, you know him, don't you? How could you know the wickedest man in the world?' I persisted. 'And what did he mean about seeing you or me again?'

'You shouldn't have been there, William. Eavesdropping is sinful.' His tone was curt. 'We'll not talk of this matter again.'

We walked back into the church in silence. I was hurt, disappointed. I felt that we were in some way far apart from each other. I was angry as I set my feet on the steps up to my room, and sighed when he called out to me. But his face bore a gentleness I'd never seen before.

'Don't be too quick to condemn Cromwell, William. You're still a child.' He smiled. 'But you can be sure that you will never be in any danger from him.' He closed his eyes, shook his head before I could ask my question. 'Now, off to bed.'

Cromwell died a few years ago, and John passed on soon afterwards. He'd always remained my counsellor and left me a generous allowance; but he never spoke again of what took place that night. He would only say that I shouldn't believe all the bad things others might say about Cromwell.

©2004 Harry Woods

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