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Authors: Paul Doherty

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BOOK: The Gallows Murders
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Chapter 2

Within days the axe had fallen. Benjamin summoned me to his chamber. He was sitting like a hanging judge just before sentence is passed.

'Sit down, Roger’
I did so.

'Roger, what you did was brave and good.' Benjamin smiled across the desk at me.

Well, you know old Shallot. I just stared owlishly back at his eyebrows. It's an old trick - if you do that, people think you're being manly and holding their gaze, open and honest. Actually, some of the biggest rogues I have ever met could stare you in the eye and let the lies trip from their tongue. Oh yes, and a few of them wore skirts...

'Master?' I asked innocently.

The business with the Poppletons, Roger,' Benjamin replied. 'I know what happened. Mistress Poppleton is a wicked woman and, on reflection, I could not understand her speedy conversion to the truth.' He waved a hand. 'Oh, don't worry, she won't recant, but they are now asking questions, Roger. They are searching for a servant whom their steward hired to empty the jakes pots. He dropped one on the floor and mysteriously disappeared. They have also made enquiries about the great Dr Mirabilis. Moreover, the Poppleton steward, to save himself, has suddenly remembered how, when Dr Mirabilis was holding forth in the taproom of the White Hart, you were always present.' Benjamin joined his hands and leaned across the desk. To cut a long story short, Roger, the Poppletons are after your blood. They are threatening to lay certain information about you before the justices’

‘I have done nothing wrong,' I retorted. 'And if they wish to make fools of themselves in public ...'

'Oh, they won't mention "Rotterus Arsicus",' Benjamin replied, trying not to laugh. ‘But they will allege you sell potions and physics, that you are a counterfeit man.' He shrugged. 'And you know where that could end? A fine, prison, the stocks or the whipping post.'

'My medicines are good,' I wailed.
'All of them?'

'Well, I do my best. They are no better, and certainly no worse, than what is being sold in London.'

'But they'll say different.'
‘You could appeal to "dearest Uncle"?'

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake. If Cardinal Wolsey, old fat Tom, knew I was heading for a beating, he'd just sit back, let it happen, and watch the fun. (Strange, isn't it? Thomas Wolsey, Chancellor and Cardinal! In his prime he didn't give a fig about old Shallot. However, years later, when he was dying and his throat began to rattle and he began to fear hell-fire, whom does he turn to, but old Shallot?)

Benjamin's face told me there would be no comfort there.

'What do you advise?' I sighed.
Benjamin threw a purse of silver across the table.

‘Roger, you are to go into hiding. I have a kinsman, a very distant one, more an acquaintance really. He is the Prior of St Dunstan's outside Swaffham. I have sent him a message asking him to protect you. Go and hide there.'

'In a priory?' I yelled. 'Amongst mouldy monks and fornicating friars? No ale, no wine!'

'Aye and no wenches,' Benjamin added. 'Roger, it's the safest. The Poppletons are wicked people. If the justices have no time for them, they will hire others to do their bidding.'

‘I can take care of myself,' I replied, pushing my chest out and pulling back my shoulders. ‘I am skilled at dagger and club, and Seigneur Damoral, our fencing master, says there's little more he can teach me.'

'And that will be your defence?' Benjamin replied. 'Against ten rogues on a dark and lonely lane? Or a musket fired behind a hedgerow? Or a crossbow bolt as you sit fishing on the riverbank?'

Benjamin was a very wise man. I am not a coward. I just run very fast. I am also not a fool. It's all right for you young men who read stories about idiots leading charges, but I am of a different mould. 'He who fights and runs away may get out of fighting on another day\ is one of Shallot's favourite maxims. Three hours later I left the manor. I'd washed, shaved and changed. Benjamin's silver was in my purse. My swordbelt on, my horse the best we had, and all of my worldly possessions (including my medicine chest) strapped to a sumpter pony. I shook my master's hand. I stared at his eyebrows and solemnly promised I would be the best monk in Swaffham.

I reached the priory late that night. I didn't even say who I really was. I pretended to be Dr Mirabilis journeying between York and London.

'Now, that's really strange,' the grizzled, old guest-master declared, fingering his lips. 'Only recently we had another Dr Mirabilis pass this way. He treated some boils on Brother Ralph's backside.'

'Oh?' I asked.

'Oh yes. He gave him a potion.' 'And the boils went?' I asked hopefully. 'Oh yes, but Brother Ralph is now weak on his feet.' 'Oh, that Dr Mirabilis.' I drew my brows together. 'He's a distant kinsman of mine.' I pushed open the door leading to the warm, clean-swept guest-chamber. That's one of the reasons I am going to London,' I declared in hushed tones. ‘His Excellency the Cardinal has asked me to follow this Dr Mirabilis round the country and expose him for the charlatan he is.'

Oh, heigh nonny no: the monk accepted every word I said. I spent a very comfortable night at the priory. I ate a hearty breakfast and left a bottle of my elixir for weak legs in lieu of payment.

'Oh,' I added as I mounted my horse in the courtyard, tell Father Prior that I bear messages from Master Benjamin Daunbey. Roger Shallot will not be coming here. The poor man has had a sudden conversion and decided to join the Cistercians at Mount Grace in Yorkshire.'

I shook the guest-master's hand and galloped out of the priory, heading like an arrow straight for the fleshpots of London. I arrived there two days later and took chambers in a tavern, the Mitre and Pig, which stands between two brothels in Southwark, overlooking the Thames. I ate heartily, bedded one of the wenches, and plotted what I should do. Naturally I spent a great deal of the time in the taproom searching out the lie of the land, but the news I heard there chilled my blood. A terrible sickness was sweeping through the city. Sudden and violent, it gave people the cramps followed by sweating and vomiting. Buboes appeared in the armpits and groin and, once this happened, death followed in a matter of days.

'Oh yes,' an old tinker assured me, 'they be dropping like flies across the river. The King, the great Cardinal, and all the Court have gone to Windsor.' He lowered his voice, whispering through where his teeth had once been. The city is going to die. Satan has risen from Hell to collect his own. People say this is a curse from God. A plague sent to punish their sins.'

I let the old fool prattle on. To me London was not the mouth of Hell but a veritable paradise: the streets were packed with morris dancers, hobby horses, minstrels, men in armour and trumpeters. Nevertheless, next morning when I crossed London Bridge, through the gatehouse and past the chapel of St Thomas a Becket, I noticed a difference. There were not so many carts. Nor the crowds who stand and gape on either end of the bridge at the severed heads and quartered, pickled limbs of traitors.

As I walked deeper into the city I realised the old tinker was not a fool but a prophet. Entire streets had been closed, sealed off with bars, wooden railings and chains: dark, gloomy tunnels where the refuse had not been collected but simply burnt and left to smoulder. An occasional flicker of flame showed through the heavy pall of smoke which hung there, trapped by the overhanging houses.

In Cheapside the markets and stalls were empty; not even the whores touted for business. A whining beggar on the corner of an alleyway in the Poultry told me how the rich and powerful had fled the city, following the King and Court for the fresh air of the countryside. I could scarcely believe it. I wandered back down towards the river, but the cranes and wharves were empty. The fine shops and houses of the merchants were locked and barred, their windows shuttered. So I went to the area around Newgate, always a busy place, the justices and their bailiffs forever carrying out sentence. In the Great Beast's London you could be hanged for stealing a hawk's egg, letting out a pond, or buggery (though that was rare, you had to catch them red-handed). Or for cutting a purse, as well as conjuring, sorcery, witchcraft and all those other roguish hobbies. The great yard in front of the prison doors, however, was deserted. I found the same at Smithfield. London had become an eerie city, where smoke from burning fires wafted like ghosts amongst the houses. I called into a tavern. The landlord stood far off and inspected me most carefully.

'Are you hale and well?' he asked.

'As merry-legged as you are!' I retorted.

Well, there's nothing the kitchen can offer you!' he snapped.

I told him not to be surly, and demanded a cup of wine and half a loaf of stale bread whilst I sat and plotted. Now I had left Southwark speedily, so I bartered with the landlord to stable my horses. I also hired a chamber with a heavy chest fortified by three locks to keep my possessions in. I came downstairs and walked back into the taproom. Near the window a fellow was sitting, some bardmonger cheerily humming. I ordered another cup of wine and sat and watched him: he kept mopping his face and running a finger round the neck of his shirt. The day was warm but, on close inspection, I noticed the sweat running like water down his face. The landlord, too, became alarmed.

‘You were hale and hearty when you came in,' he shouted from behind the beer-barrels, as if these great vats were a bulwark against infection.

The man got up. ‘I feel ill,' he stammered. ‘I ...' He staggered a few paces, gave a groan and collapsed on the floor.

The landlord screamed and ran into the scullery, slamming the door behind him. I felt like following, but the man moaned, arching his back as if in dire agony. I walked over and knelt down beside him. His face was pallid, his clothes damp with sweat.

‘For Jesus' sake, help me!' he gasped.

Well, what could I do? I couldn't let the poor bugger die there. So, putting my hands beneath his armpits, I dragged him out into the stableyard. I swung him across my pony and made my way up the deserted streets to St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield. The great market area before the abbey church was deserted. No quacks, no gingerbread stalls, no hucksters. I hammered on the door of the hospital, screaming at the top of my voice. A small postern-gate opened. An anxious-faced lay Brother popped his head out.

'Go away!' He yelled, glancing fearfully at the man whom I had lashed to the saddle.

‘For the love of Christ!' I snarled back. This is a hospital and this man is ill!'

The lay Brother sighed and, holding a vinegar-soaked cloth to his mouth and nose, stepped out. He walked over to my patient, mumbled something at me and fled back into the hospital. I went back myself: my hand brushed that of the victim. He was ice-cold. I crouched down and looked up into his face: his jaw sagged, his eyes were open.

God have mercy, the poor creature had died during that short journey from the tavern to St Bartholomew's. That was the sweating sickness, sudden and violent. I cut the body loose and lay it in the door of the church; if they didn't help the living, at least they could bury the dead! I walked back towards my tavern. It was now early afternoon. A few more people were about, but so were the death-carts. Huge, monstrous affairs, these trundled about, their drivers dressed completely in black, like shadows shot up from hell. They'd stop by a house, knock on the door, and corpses in their shifts, sometimes sewn into black canvas sheets, were thrown out like heaps of refuse. The carters, laughing and talking amongst themselves, would pick up the corpses, toss them into the cart, and trundle on. These men loved their job. They adorned themselves with black plumes and feathers and decorated their grisly carts with white-painted skeletons or the figure of death. Their bell-boys were similarly garbed: these would go in front of the carts, tolling a handbell and shouting, 'Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!' Those houses where the infection had struck were boarded up and a great red cross daubed on them.

In some streets, looting and pillaging had begun. The riflers and cut-throats were breaking into empty houses and, with all the cheek of the devil, heaping their booty up in the carts. No one dared stop them. Oh, there were soldiers and city watchmen, but they were more frightened than helpful. They were wary of the infection and kept well away from any house bearing a red cross. The only time I saw them act was at a house just off the Shambles in Newgate. A family, fearful of an infected relative, were trying to flee, only to be forced back by the soldiers.

I returned to the tavern but the door was now closed and barred. I went round to the stableyard. My sumpter pony was standing forlornly there and, beneath the window, the iron-bound chest which contained my possessions lay smashed against the cobbles. For a while I stood and cursed, screaming at the landlord to open up. At last he replied, flinging open a window and spilling out the dirty contents of a nightjar which narrowly escaped me.

'Be gone!' he cursed. 'You're infected yourself. You'll find all your possessions there!'

I called him Satan's spawn and every other filthy name I could muster. At last, exhausted, I opened the chest. I took out my saddlebags and headed for the reeking alleyways and runnels of Whitefriars to seek out Dr Quicksilver.

I found him in his shabby tenement on the corner of Stinking Lane. He was just sitting down to sup. He greeted me as if I was the prodigal son and he the loving father.

"Roger, Roger, come and dine with me.' He took my saddlebags from my shoulder, weighing them carefully in his hands. 'More medicines, Roger, for the great Dr Mirabilis’

'It's because of Dr Mirabilis,' I snapped back, that I’m in London! The Great Mouth found me out: I need lodgings.'

Quicksilver put my saddlebags down and spread his hands. ‘Roger, this is your home. All that I have is thine.'

BOOK: The Gallows Murders
3.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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