The Black Avons - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Black Avons ebook

Edgar Wallace



Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace was born in London, England in 1875. He received his early education at St. Peter’s School and the Board School, but after a frenetic teens involving a rash engagement and frequently changing employment circumstances, Wallace went into the military. He served in the Royal West Kent Regiment in England and then as part of the Medical Staff Corps stationed in South Africa. Over the rest of his life, Wallace produced some 173 books and wrote 17 plays. These were largely adventure narratives with elements of crime or mystery, and usually combined a bombastic sensationalism with hammy violence. „"The Black Avons"” is a novel by this pioneer of crime fiction. Fast-paced, with good twists and turns, an unusual criminal scheme.

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I. How They Fared in the Time of the Tudors








II. Roundhead and Cavalier





III. From Waterloo to the Mutiny






IV. Europe in the Melting Pot







I. How They Fared in the Time of the Tudors


“HISTORIES,” said Hare, “used often to be stories. The fashion now is to leave out the story.”

I have not, I hope, in recording the doings of the Black Avons, sacrificed history for the sake of romance. A right reading of history frequently offers us a solution to our present-day problems. It is a truism that history repeats itself, and it is a curious fact that we can find parallels for almost every political and national situation of to-day, if we delve into the story of the past.

I have endeavoured in the course of these narratives, which comprise the history of a fictitious family, to be honest, not only in my conclusions, but honest also to myself. We live too near to the great events of the immediate past to understand properly the true significance of that terrible conflict which drew into the field of war the civilized nations of the earth. Many of us are blinded by prejudice and suspicion, and may have forgotten that the spectre of military Germany was the successor to one as hideous and as terrifying, the spectre of an armed France, bent to the will of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The day must come, sooner or later–and history supplies inexorable proofs–when there will be a change in the orientation, not only of British policy but in the policies of the great nations of Europe. War and peace are no longer the playthings of despots. The widespread of education to which a great band of men and women have devoted their lives, has largely paralysed political machinery and has substituted the intelligent reasoning of the masses. As the fate of great parties is in the hands of the educated mass, so is the question of peace and war.

This little book is an unpretentious effort to present in story form some of the factors which determined the growth of British dominion. It is necessarily incomplete since it was impossible that I could bring into a short story all the factors that went to the making of our history. My only hope is that the stories may interest the student and lead him into the field of research–a field which holds many treasures for the diligent seeker.

E. W.


I BEGIN by setting forth the meaning and reason of the writing–as all chroniclers of the Avon family must do–by virtue of an oath sworn in Winchester in the year of our Lord one thousand one hundred and thirty-nine, being some years after the first Henry’s death (that so-called Lion of Justice). For five hundred years there hath appeared in every century an Avon whose locks were the colour of jet and whose skin was swarthy, and because such appearance hath marked troublous days in the history of England (as was well prophesied by Hugh de Boisy, a saintly man of Winchester), it was covenanted in these words, and so sworn before the altar in the presence of the Bishop, John de Blois, own brother to King Stephen, and a number of Christian gentlemen; to wit:

“He of the Avons who be most scholarly shall keep faithful chronicle of such events and curious or terrible happenings in the land of England which shall run with the life of a black Avon, we Avons here assembled in the great church at Winchester believing that, by the mysterious working of God, which, being ignorant and humble folk, we do not wot, it is ordained that the coming in of a black Avon is a portent or presage of Greater Glory for our land. Therefore shall be ever in our family one who shall be taught to write so that the black Avon when he doth appear shall be marked and his name immortalized to the Glory of God and the honour of the Avons who shall subsist hereafter.”

Now when this oath was sworn there were but few clerkly men in the noble families, but nowadays, of the hundred and fifty-seven grown men and women of our race, there are as many as ten who can write fairly and near to eighty who can sign their names. Let us humbly thank God that He hath given enlightenment to His children.

I was born in the reign of the eighth Henry whom men called Bluff King Hal. The morn of my birth was the day when Anne Boleyn, who was mother of the great Elizabeth, was brought to the scaffold for her many wickednesses, and because of my father’s admiration for the King (he approving of such terrible methods though he was a good husband and father), I was called Henry.

My father was a man of fortune, being Lord of the Manor of Beverleigh, near the town of Norwich, and he was a true Catholic who yet approved the six articles. I have heard it said by foolish young people that King Henry brought Protestantism and the ways of the German Luther into England. Such is the ignorance of these wights that they believe the king abolished the Roman Catholic religion. In truth Henry hated all Protestants, and I mind as a boy seeing three preachers of the reformed religion hanging upon one gibbet on the top of Norwich Castle.

For Henry did but deny to the Pope the headship of our Church and substitute himself therefor. And though he gave the Bible in the English tongue to every church, where it was chained to a pillar (as I have seen myself in many cathedrals and churches), yet as soon as he did find that the common people construed the Holy Scriptures to their own circumstances, then were the Bibles closed to them.

And many monasteries such as were rich, they say, he confiscated to the distress of the common people, who looked to the monks in their sickness and sorrow and had employment of them. Most of these monastery holdings was arable land which the peasants tilled, and when, as was the fashion in these times, the new holders of the land turned them to pasture for their sheep, there was misery and starvation in England, and honest labourers, having neither food nor work to procure the support of their families, joined with robbers and rebels, or else were branded or hanged as beggars.

The young boy Edward, sixth of that name to rule England, came to the throne in 1547 when I was eleven, and well I remember the bonfires we lit and tended, though there was sorrow enough for great Henry’s death, and throughout the land (as my father has told me) an uneasiness of spirit, partly I think, because the people dreaded what might come about from the old King’s will as to the succession, and partly because of the rising tide of discontent against the enclosuring of land which went on in our eastern counties to an extent beyond reason. The price of English wool was high, and the Flanders merchants could never get enough. So the great lords and the landowners began to take further pastures, enclosing common land which fed the peasant’s flocks and on which he grew his food.

My father lived in style at Beverleigh Manor, the home of our family, and my heart grows wanting for the old place with the great avenues of oaks and its broad meadows.

Here came the gentry of the county, and I have seen two score when we sat at midday to dinner.

We kept a hearty table: mutton and young lamb, boars’ heads and fat capons, with cunning pasties of venison and wild duck; large chines of beef and gallons of ale, cool and fragrant from the buttery.

Of those who came–and they were not the most welcome–I remember Robert Ket and William his brother. My father had some business with him, or he would not have come at all.

Particularly do I remember Robert, a noisy man of ruddy countenance, whom some of the gentry spoke of as “the tanner,” though he lorded the Manor at Wymondham. He was a fresh-coloured, blusterous, talkative man, with great ideas about the wrongs of the people.

“This be the time when we would have a Black Avon among us,” he said, in his broad, rustic way. “That from me, young master! For they do say hereabouts in Norfolk:

“‘Red Avon a Lord, Black Avon a Sword’

“and ‘tis a sword we want and a right stout man to stand before these villains who enclose our lands that their sheep should browse and ours should starve! Ye’ll see the day, young master, when the people of England will take sword and torch as they did in our forefathers’ days.”

“And be hanged, Master Ket,” quoth I, “even as they.”

He looked with gloom at this.

“You have the learning of a grown man, Master Henry Avon,” he said. “But still I say: pray God sends us a Black Avon, for the Black Avons are on the people’s side.”

I liked him well enough, though his bull voice frightened me. Better I liked Anna Lyle (or de Lisle, as some say, she being of a French stock), his little ward, a quiet little maid with whom I oft-times played battledore and a kind of tennis. She was fair as I, though less learned in the matter of foreign tongues.

My memories of my home are vivid yet indistinct, as though I see it through a screen in which great rents are cut, so that some part of it is like as it were seen through a fog, and some most clear, even as to-day I may look out of my window and see the fields of Charing, where the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field stands proudly amidst the cottages of the country folk.

My father was, as I say, well respected by the gentry, both for his learning, which was considerable, and his soldierly qualities, which were notable. He had served in war against France under His Grace the Duke of Suffolk, being squire at that time to Sir Edward Seymour, who afterwards was made Earl of Hertford, and about the time of which I write was styled Duke of Somerset. This association was to influence my life, for at the age of eleven, after the coming in of the young king, when the Duke of Somerset was appointed Protector, my father begged a place at Court for me, which was most graciously granted, I being promised Page of the Presence to His Grace.

“I doubt not you will find the Duke a kindly man, for this he has always been,” said my father; “though as to his politics I have my own view. Yet it seems that he does not show the spirit and sureness which marked him in certain of his campaigns. King Henry went far enough with the Catholics, but Somerset goes farther. So that he will have a new religion here, to the hurt of the people, who see not the fine adjustings of such high matter, but know only one way to come to the presence of God, and, if that be denied them, will fight for it.”

I told him thereupon all that Robert Ket had said to me, but this he dismissed angrily.

“Ket had better look to his fine manor at Wymondham,” he said threateningly.

Two days before I set forth on my journey to London, my father told me, walking on the terrace of our house:

“Watch you well, my son, Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who is at Court no friend of the Duke’s, if all the stories I hear be true. You will find him none too gentle of speech, but he is a good soldier. Speak to him and tell him you are of our stock, for we were together in the Scottish Wars, and he owes me a whole throat, for I cut down the Scottish gentleman who would have murdered him at Pinkie.”

With my head buzzing with advice and admonitions, messages to old companions in arms, injunctions, warnings and the like, set I out from the city of Norwich one fair morning in May, my horse’s head turned towards London, and two packhorses, my man Dick, and a gentleman of Norwich who was making the journey to London, being my companions. I wore my new suit, a doublet of fine red cloth, a greatcoat lined with fur, such as had come into fashion in Henry’s day, leather riding boots to my calves, embroidered about the top in an ancient but very becoming fashion. I also wore my flat cap of velvet, which was then new-fangled, but later was worn by all the gentry.

My father at parting gave me seven shillings, the like of which sum I had never possessed in my life, and this I carried in a little bag attached to my belt. He was to allow me ten pounds a year for my keep and lodging, a large sum, and one rarely allowed to a younger son; so that, with the prospect of life at court and all the wonderful and stirring experiences which lay ahead of me, I set out with a light heart and came, at the end of nine days, to London.

The Court was at Greenwich, a palace which the young king greatly favoured. After a night spent amidst the bewilderment of a great city, I took barge next morning and was rowed past the great shipyards of Deptford to the beautiful palace where Edward was born.

I arrived too late to be seen by His Grace, but the next morning presented myself at his chambers and was kindly received by him, as my father had predicted. He was a man of over forty, and I can well believe the stories that I was told from the crowd of courtiers, pages and esquires with whom I mixed that morning, that he was sore distrait. All the time he spoke with me, which he did most courteously, his fingers were running through his locks, his eyes absent.

“Well indeed do I remember Sir John Avon,” he said. And then, stroking his little beard, he seemed of a sudden to bring his mind to me and my visit. “There is no place for thee in my entourage,” he said, and, seeing my face fall, he seemed at haste to rouse my drooping spirits. “But my lord Warwick spoke to me yesternight that he needed a clerkly page.”

He then cross-examined me about my learning, and, sending for one of his gentlemen, bade him take me to the Earl of Warwick. As I was leaving his presence, he said:

“I’d like you best black, Master Avon! For I have need in these days of resolute swordsmen and balanced minds.”

I knew he was talking about that famous Harry Avon of long ago, about whom my ancestor, Sir Thomas Avon of Chichester, had written.

I was puzzled that he should have sent me to the Earl of Warwick, for it was common gossip that between these gentlemen, who were the most important of the sixteen noblemen which formed the Council of the Regency, no great love was lost; though they had fought together in Scotland in the opening months of His Majesty’s reign: the Scottish Wars, as you know, being caused by the refusal of the great Scottish lords to have our Edward made husband to Mary, the young Queen of Scots, who was now fled into France and married to the Dauphin.

Can it be (I have wondered) that the Lord Protector, as the Duke of Somerset was called, should desire that a member of my family, known to be loyal to His Grace, should be a spy upon his rival? Some such thought had the Earl of Warwick when I presented myself to him at his lodgings.

He was a dour, suspicious man, unfriendly of countenance, and had a way of half-closing his eyes when he looked at you as though he doubted every word you spoke.

“It is true, boy, that I need a page,” he said, and then examined me as to my learning, and at the end gave me a letter which was written in the Greek and which I read for him in good English. It was signed “Jane,” and little I knew, as I read that word, meaningless to me, that the tiny hand which had written so fairly was that which one day would push back her hair that the cruel headman’s axe should have full play. For this Jane was the Lady Jane Grey, ward of the Earl of Warwick, daughter of the Marquis of Dorset, who later took the title of Duke of Suffolk; and when his lordship told me that this had been written by one who was a year younger than myself, I took doubt of my own learning.

“Why sent the Duke you to me?” he asked, when he had put away the letter. “Am I so poor in friends that my servants must be commended to me by His Grace?”

And then I think he remembered, for, with an impatient “Tut”–

“True, I spoke to the Duke. What is your name, young master?”

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