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Buchan skillfully weaves the story of young clerk Peter Pentecost, who has a claim to the throne, and a tale of intrigue against King Henry VIII, where ‘under the blanket of the dark all men are alike and all are nameless’. Buchan’s description of the ruthless king is compelling. His knowledge of the time of Henry’s reign and his love of the Oxfordshire countryside are apparent.
390 pages, with a reading time of ~6.0 hours (97,621 words), and first published in 1931. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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Peter Pentecost, from his eyrie among the hazels, looked down on the King’s highway as it dipped from Stowood through the narrow pass to the Wood Eaton meadows. It was a King’s highway beyond question, for it was the main road from London to Worcester and the west for those who did not wish to make Oxford a halting-place; but it was a mere ribbon of rutted turf, with on each side the statutory bowshot of cleared ground between it and the forest fringes. And, as he looked, he saw the seventh magpie.
Peter was country-bred and had country lore in the back of his mind. Also, being a scholar, he respected auspices. So, having no hat to doff, he pulled his forelock. Seven magpies in one day must portend something great.
He had set off that summer morning on an errand for the cellarer of Oseney Abbey to the steward of the King’s manor of Beckley, some matter touching supplies for the Abbey kitchen. The sun had risen through lamb’s-wool mists, the river was a fleckless sheet of silver, and Peter had consecrated the day to holiday. He had done his errand long before noon, and had spent an hour watching the blue lagoons on Otmoor (there was much water out, for July had begun with rains), with the white geese like foam on the edges. The chantry priest at Horton had given him food–a crust only and a drink of ale, for the priest was bitter poor–and in the afternoon he had wandered in the Stowood glades, where the priory of Studley had right of pannage and the good sisters’ droves of swine rooted for earth-nuts. Peter was young, and holiday and high summertide could still intoxicate. He had lain on the spicy turf of the open spaces, his nose deep in thyme and rock-rose; he had made verses in the shadow of the great oaks which had been trees when Domesday Book was written; he had told his dreams aloud to himself at the well under the aspens where the Noke fletchers cut their arrows. The hours had slipped by unnoted, and the twilight was beginning when he reached his favourite haunt, a secret armchair of rock and grass above the highway. He had seen four magpies, so something was on the way.
The first things he saw in the amethyst evening were two more of the pied birds, flapping down the hollow towards Wood Eaton. After them came various figures, for at that hour the road seemed to have woken into life. Travellers appeared on it like an evening hatch of gnats.
First came a couple of friars–Franciscans by their grey habits– who had been exploiting the faithful in the Seven Towns of Otmoor. Their wallets swung emptily, for the moor-men had a poor repute among the religious. They would sleep the night, no doubt, in the Islip tithe-barn. After them appeared one of the Stowood hogwards, with the great cudgel of holly which was the badge of his trade. Peter knew what he was after. In the dusk he would get a rabbit or two for his supper on the edge of the Wood Eaton warren, for the hogwards were noted poachers.
From his view-point he could see half a mile down the road, from the foot of the hill to where it turned a corner and was lost in the oakwoods of the flats. It was like the stage of a Christmas mumming play, and Peter settled himself comfortably in his lair, and waited with zest for the entry of the next actors. This time it was a great wool-convoy, coming towards him from the Cherwell. He watched the laden horses strain up the slope, eleven of them, each like a monstrous slug buried in its wool-pack. There were five attendants, four on foot and one riding a slim shaggy grey pony. They might be London bound, or more likely for Newbury, where Jack Winchcombe had his great weaving mill and the workmen wrought all day in sheds high and dim as a minster–so many workmen that their master twenty years back had led his own battalion of spinners, carders and tuckers to Flodden Field. Peter viewed the convoy with no friendly eye. The wool barons were devouring the countryside, and ousting the peasants. He had seen with his own eyes hamlets obliterated by the rising tide of pasture. Up in Cotswold the Grevels and Celys and Midwinters might spend their wealth in setting up proud churches, but God would not be bribed. Let them remember Naboth’s vineyard, those oppressors of the poor. Had not the good Sir Thomas More cried out that in England the sheep were eating up the men?