Connie Brockway
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First Knight

First Knight

IN THE BEGINNING...

Marking the border of Cornwall and Devon, a small, inconsequential river runs out of the moors. Like a royal courier on a vital mission, the river Cabot gains impetus as it goes, ultimately flying past the tiny village of Trecombe before plummeting over the steep cliffs into the sea. Of late, the banks of the river have yielded an unforeseen boon in the form of a particularly fine clay which has, in turn, given rise to Trecombe's new cottage industry.

Most people would concede it is a long overdue reward for the faithful Trecombians who have long lived in this grand, often austere, but always beautiful land. Indeed, there are families who claim they are descendants of the town's founding father, a knight who, on his mandatory quest to find the Holy Grail, fell asleep beside the river and was awakened by a tall, green-eyed maiden who bade him stay ... along with a number of interesting things which in no way affect this story.

Needless to say, stay he did and whether the tale is true or not, the fact remains that even today Trecombe boasts a greater number of green-eyed residents per capita than any other place in England. It was one of the few things that German bombing runs and severe economic depression failed to destroy. In fact, few of the neat, picturesque cottages here are over a hundred years old and the town, pretty though it is, would seem to have little to recommend itself to an archeologist or social historian.

However, a small way out of Trecombe, as if distancing themselves from the town's pedestrian concerns, stand two ancient buildings. Roosting atop the cliffs is St. Albion's chapel, complacent at having escaped the dissolution that claimed its adjacent abbey. The other structure, a short distance inland, is Masterson Manor, once the home of the town's first—and as far as anyone knows, only crusader, Sir Nicholas.

From behind the manor's stalwart walls, Sir Nicholas had directed the fortification of Trecombe against brig¬ands. In its high-ceilinged rooms he had sired eight sons, all of whom had lived to adulthood. From its graceful mullioned windows he had watched his castle being built atop the cliff walls. And while that castle, emblem of his might and power, has been reduced to a few ruins, the manor still stands, noble and handsome in its antiquity.

In its current incarnation, Masterson Manor is a private museum. Regrettably, the house isn't the stuff from which successful private museums are made. It is small as house museums go, having only twenty rooms, and set in a wildly beautiful, untamed landscape, not the manicured Disney gardens day-trippers with kiddies prefer. And while the assortment of Masterson heirlooms the current curator has so lovingly and painstakingly collected is impressive, there is only one item unique to Masterson Manor, one item which draws the specialist and historian along the twisted lanes and remote byways that lead to Trecombe: The Masterson Bed.

But even this gem has not been able to generate enough money to keep the doors open, the taxes paid, and the current owners in treacle pudding. And so, the Masterson Museum is closing. Indeed, it has already been sold. And this is the last tour of the last day...

Laurel Whitney, the museum's curator, house sitter, and social historian, closed her eyes briefly as the group she was leading murmured appreciatively over the contents of the dining room. She would have few opportunities left in which to soak up the atmosphere of the place, an atmosphere she was in great part responsible for creating. For it had been Laurel had found the Chippendale dining table that exactly fit an earlier Masterson lady's description of the one her family had owned. Just as Laurel had painstakingly hunted down the complete silver service placed on that table, located and hung the exact pattern William Morris paper she'd seen gracing these walls in nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and, through sheer perseverance, had bullied a local family into relinquishing the original Tabriz carpet that lay on the floor.

She adored Masterson Manor.

It was the stuff of dreams for a doctoral candidate in Social History because manor houses of this vintage were much harder to come by than castles. In fact, she couldn't remember being happier than since she'd come here...Well, in point of fact, she could. But that hadn't been real happiness; it had been sex. This was happiness with staying power: The happiness that comes only with the Acquisition of Knowledge.

In the library she'd found a sixteenth-century diary and a pair of black candlesticks that a good cleaning had revealed to be a fourteenth-century silver candelabra. In the bedroom, she'd discovered a secret drawer containing a fan written over in a tiny delicate scrawl with the names of Regency gentleman. And in a rosewood chest she'd found artifacts from the long gone abbey, including a ninth-century cross and a gold paten.

She'd identified at least eighteen clothing eras from examples pulled from the attic's mothball-cushioned trunks and had begun to sift through a cache of ledgers she'd found in the basement when the current owners had announced that they had sold the manor to a private party who intended to make it his summer home and that all the contents were being auctioned off.

Laurel had been aghast. Was aghast. She'd spent the month since the announcement frantically trying to complete a rough transcription of the ledgers she'd found before the new owner arrived. If only there had been more time. But there wasn't. There wouldn't be.

She glanced briefly out the window to the west where the sun made a spectacular orchid and magenta display behind the tumbled castle walls. An hour at most before the tour ended and then what did the future hold for her? Would she go back to America? Move to London? Maybe Glastonbury?

The thought caused her stomach to twist in knots. She belonged here. Knowing she drank from the same gilt and rose-patterned Wedgewood teacups as Lady Meredith Masterson gave her a sense of continuity. When she took the footpath to the castle ruins and stared out across the sea as the wind rushed up from the breakers and whipped her dark hair, she felt an exhilaration no place on earth had ever engendered in her. And sometimes late at night, when the house was closed and the owners gone, and she'd wrapped herself in a cashmere shawl and was toasting her toes at the hearth, she could almost hear the sounds of those earlier Mastersons moving about on upper floors, quiet of foot, deliberate in movement. She would miss those discreet ghosts.

Unconsciously she straightened. She couldn't think of the future. She wouldn't. It was too hard. Just as the past had been too hard to contemplate when she'd first arrived here under the excuse of researching her doctoral thesis: "The Medieval Bed, A Study of Matrimonial and Social Obligation." It was too hard, just like the presence of that... that handyman was too hard to think about.

If it had been her decision, Max Ashton wouldn't have spent ten minutes in this house. But it wasn't her decision. The new owners had hired him to "make the place halfway habitable" before their arrival. Habitable. They'd probably tear up the ancient flagstones in the kitchen and install no-wax tiles. She quelled the urge to shudder and fixed a smile on her face as she turned back to the tour group.

"If no one has any other questions for me regarding the dining room, we'll proceed upstairs," she said.

The little group, a trio of American women including one lady's teenage son and a honeymooning couple, shook their heads in the negative as Laurel ushered them into the hall. She stopped at the foot of the staircase and gestured around.

"As I pointed out earlier, Masterson Manor is built in the traditional hall style, with family area distinctly separate from public rooms. But over the centuries, the house has been renovated and altered. The barrel vaulting overhead, however, contains the original three load-bearing beams, each cut from a single piece of wood and weighing over half a ton."

The young husband, John, looked suitably impressed while the bride, Meghan, appeared anxious. Tenderly, he pulled her against his side. "It's stood nine hundred years, pet. I don't think she's about to come down now."

His bride laughed at herself and shook her head and Laurel felt a pang of envy for them. Once she'd felt like Meghan... "If you'll follow me?" she said briskly, moving up the staircase.

She pointed out the Chinese vases in the niches at the top of the stairs, pristine and gleaming red and cobalt. She was not the only one who took pride in her work here. The housekeeper, Grace, could easily have let these small things go untended but didn't, unlike the butler, Kenneth, who should have retired years ago but couldn't because of an unfortunate predilection for the racetrack. As Laurel started down the gallery, she heard the sound of pounding behind the door at the very end. Blast. He was still working.

"When are we going to see this bed you've all been talking about?" the teenage boy, Brian, suddenly asked. "Shh," his mother, Mrs. Plante, said.

Laurel turned, smiling. "It's all right. Everyone wants to see the Masterson bed. I was hoping the handyman would finish before we got to it, but time is flying and I should hate for you to be rushed through. It is the highlight of the tour."

And you wouldn't mind seeing him again, either, would you, Laurel? she asked herself derisively.

The group assured her they did indeed want to see the bed, settling the matter. She led them to the master bedchamber and stopped in front of the door. "Very well. Here she is, live for your entertainment and edifi¬cation, the one, the only... " She paused dramatically, her eyes twinkling. She always loved the look on the faces of the tourists when they got their first glimpse of The Bed. "The Masterson Bed."

She pushed open the door and stood back. Inside, Max Ashton stood up, wiping dusty hands on his jeans. Without a glance at him, Laurel ushered her group into the room. The onetime solar was a large chamber, the walls covered with Masterson family portraits, furnished in authentic Regency era artifacts, a painted screen and cherry tallboy, a carved bombe chest and black japaned inlaid desk, twin settees covered in cream and green print, drapes of heavy green damask. Still, all the sumptuous furnishings paled before the overpowering presence of the room's centerpiece: the Masterson bed.

Eight feet tall by eight feet wide by eight feet in length, the ancient walnut beauty presided over the room with the contented, slightly disreputable air of one who has weathered any number of pretenders to its crown as the oldest surviving bed in England. The deeply carved posts rising from the corners were as thick as her waist—indeed, one legend had it that they were actually dryads, transformed and hewn while in their wooden state—while the rails and canopy frame glowed darkly, polished by thousands of hands over eight hundred years. Sumptuous, detailed, and faintly exotic, the carvings covering it had provoked centuries of debate over the bed's origins.

Whatever its beginnings, the sheer weight of the thing had obviously been instrumental in its continued existence. Simply put, no one could get it out of the bedroom. Centuries had pretty much petrified the wood into something closer resembling stone than fiber. It certainly weighed as much as stone. Laurel could attest. She and Kenneth and Grace had once tried to shove it to the back wall in an attempt to get to the floorboards beneath. They had not been successful.

She eyed the epic proportions fondly. The years had taken their toll, and generations of former owners had left their scars on it, but these were only to be expected. What male Masterson had ever been able to resist marking anything that came into his possession? Still, it was a handsome, grand old thing and just looking at it filled her with a sort of reverence. One the handyman obviously didn't share, since he was regarding the group with the indulgence an adult generally saves for tots at a cartoon matinee.

She didn't spare him more than a glance but that didn't keep her from realizing that he was now sparing her plenty. And why not? At five and a half feet, packing a well- toned hundred and thirty pounds into a pair of well- cut navy slacks and snug cream-colored cashmere sweater, with hair as black and shiny as a raven's eye, and a face some men called piquant, the one thing she wasn't insecure about was her looks.

"Come have a good look-see," Laurel invited her group.

The middle-aged American ladies made a beeline for the bed. The smallest one, Mrs. Stradling, red-haired and comfortable-looking, began a minute inspection of the headboard. Brian—more interested in power tools than antiques—wandered over to where Max had exposed the wall's internal wiring.

"She's a grand old thing, isn't she?" Miss Ferguson, buxom and pert, asked.

"How do you know it's a 'she'?" the honeymooning groom asked curiously.

Miss Ferguson regarded the younger man with the condescension of the cognoscenti. "Honey, it gets made, it gets rumpled up, and it gets walked away from in the morning. Of course, it's a 'she.'"

Meghan blushed. The other ladies chuckled and even Max Ashton grinned. Only Brian didn't seem to get the joke and that was because he was backing into Max.

"Oops! Geez, I'm sorry, mister," the boy exclaimed guiltily. He'd been trying to peer through the hole in the wall.

"Think nothing of it, lad," Max replied.

At once, the three female American faces swung toward him. "You sound just like Laurence Olivier," Mrs. Plante breathed.

"Only you're taller, and fairer, of course," Mrs. Stradling pronounced, eyeing Max speculatively.

"And while the voice is refined, the look is definitely rugged," Miss Ferguson nodded sagely.

"A duke," Miss Ferguson clipped out, "with an agenda."

"Or a vendetta," Mrs. Plante mused quietly.

"Or a past," proposed Mrs. Stradling.

Even the starry-eyed Meghan was eyeing Max in friendly, if objective, appreciation. The tour was definitely getting sidetracked and Laurel did not want to spend any unnecessary time weaving fantasies about Max Ashton. She'd woven one too many in that area already.

"Please," Laurel said in barely suppressed exasperation. The women turned around from their contemplation of Max and looked at her.

"He's not Dan Stevens, you know," she said, trying for jocularity and ending up sounding tense. "Mr. Ashton, would you mind finding something else to do while we're in here? We won't be but a short while."

Max shrugged, his smile lazy and knowing. "Not a bit. But since you won't be long, and I was going to call it a day after I was done in here, why don't I just hang about while you lecture? Might even learn something interesting."

"I am sure nothing I have to say could interest you."

"Are you?" His smile had become softer. His dark eyes darker. She felt a little breathless, a little cornered by the look in his eyes... Nonsense! "Yes. Besides, I wouldn't want to bore you."

His smile faded and his gaze became even more focused on her. "Never."

She felt herself flush and to cover her sudden confusion, she turned her back on him. "As you will. Now, what say we turn our attention to the star of this show?"

"Yeah," agreed Brian.

"Good." Laurel smiled at the boy. "First off, anyone have any questions?"

This wasn't how this part of the tour was supposed to go. Usually, she did a five-minute chronology of the bed and "hasta la vista, tourists." But today she wasn't in any hurry to have them leave and the museum close for the last time. She wanted to extend this rare sense of ownership. Even more, deep within her was welling a strange feeling of urgency that there were a million stories in her that needed to be told, or else they would be silenced forever.

"Come on," she urged them. "Anything. This bed is a legend. How often do you get to sit on a legend and ask a Legend-Meister questions?"

Miss Ferguson raised a hand.

"Shoot," Laurel said.

"Okay. When was the bed made and who made it?"

"Good question." Laurel nodded sagely. "The fact is, we don't know for certain who made the Masterson bed. It's first mentioned in historical annals in the late thirteenth century, when a visiting nobleman wrote about his sojourn in Trecombe and how his host gave up 'a wondrously carved, magnificently foreign bed for my comfort.'

"'Magnificently foreign' is a direct translation and our best clue as to its origins."

Laurel knew she was good at this, not because she was smart or conscientious, but because she loved it. As she spoke, she could feel the decades and centuries slip away, a world form in her imagination that she only needed to close her eyes to see, feel, smell, and hear.

"From this reference and judging from the motifs in the carving, we can gather that the bed was made somewhere near Jerusalem at the beginning of the same century," she went on. "Undoubtedly it was brought back to England by a crusading knight." She smiled happily. "That's right. The first recorded Masterson was a bona fide knight."

A knight in shining armor, a man who understood and lived by a code of chivalry, a 'flower of manhood,' she thought wistfully. And while logically she knew she would have found a thirteenth-century knight chauvinistic, egocentric, and violent, she wished there were men about today—she glanced at Max—who treated a lady as well as they did, with respect and consideration.

"Just think of what it must have been like to be a knight in those days," she went on dreamily. "It was like being a rock star today, only the jousting field was his concert hall and noblemen and noblewomen were his groupies.

"And a tournament! The ultimate concert! It would have been fabulous. Imagine one in which the Masterson knight rode." She sighed deeply, her eyes fixed on an interior vision she alone could see.

"He enters the field on his prancing destrier, his armor shimmering in the sun. The pennants ringing the field snap beneath a cerise-colored sky as the crowds dressed in silks and satins cheer. The children throw him flowers while the ladies toss him their silk scarves."

She closed her eyes. "I wish I could have seen it..."