Authors: Paul Lawrence
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical
The Chronicles of Harry Lytle
For Ruth, Charlotte, Callum, Cameron and Ashleigh
We write of the year 1666 in which, according unto the expectations of many, very miraculous accidents shall happen.
Astrological Judgments for the year 1666
I poked the rancid beef about my plate, suppressing a desire to run from this place, dancing and singing, all the way to the Mermaid. For that afternoon I made a momentous decision, the most important decision a man makes, for I decided what to do with the rest of my life. I was going to become an apothecary. I wanted to celebrate, tell the whole world, and drink a toast to myself. Instead I withered beneath the stony glare of Mrs Collis, who stared like she suspected me of a great crime, her face glowing a shade of pale green in the candlelight.
The cesspit overflowed. We had sidestepped a shallow pool of thin, brown soup on the way to the dining room, seeping from beneath the cellar door. It stank so foul I could taste it at the back of my throat. It coated my tongue. Every morsel of food on the table, every mouthful,
tasted the same as the air smelt: rank and putrid.
You could tell who were the butchers sat around the table. They were the ones munching slowly with the monotonous rhythm of contented cows, happily oblivious. Of them all, Dowling was the largest and seemingly most satisfied. Square-shouldered as a dray mare, his head resembled a boulder on a beach, grey and craggy, coated with a thin layer of spiky, white bristle.
John Collis sat at the end of the table, he whose wedding it was. His ruddy, blotched face stared out unhappily from beneath a stiff, tangled mess of brown goat hair, a stray lump of periwig fallen precarious over his right eye. I never saw a butcher in a wig before. I had met him but two or three times, for he was Dowling’s friend, not mine. I was surprised he invited me to his wedding dinner.
Fourteen of us sat round the long table, the backs of our chairs pressed up against the plaster walls. Bride and groom sat next to each other at the head, flanked by a bridesman and two bridesmaids. Collis sat with shoulders petrified, only his jowls hanging loose and floppy, while his bride scrutinised the rest of us like we were strangers, peering beady-eyed through the darkening gloom.
The pile of cakes and biscuits at the centre of the table stood modest, for the butchers all brought meat instead. The taller the pile, the brighter the prospect of the couple, which signified a life of hardship for these two.
The church ceremony had passed cheerfully enough. Though a second marriage, Mr and Mrs Collis nevertheless chose to marry in public, an option neglected by many for fear of mockery and sabotage. The vulgar guardians of social sensibilities made special effort to attend such occasions, to whistle and jeer at the reading of the banns, then to follow the newly wedded couple back to their house, to make
uproarious din as they prepared to consummate their union. Today’s congregation participated with sombre respect, for everyone knew these two suffered grievous loss during the plague. Collis lost his wife and all three children; Mrs Collis lost a husband and two sons. Collis managed a smile or two, but the bride scowled, with a permanently wrinkled nose.
The last of the daylight slipped away, leaving us to the mercy of the long thin candles lined up down the centre of the table. The pocks upon Collis’s face turned black.
‘I am thinking of becoming an apothecary,’ I said to Dowling, louder than I intended.
Dowling stopped chewing, and regarded me like I was drunk. ‘Making drugs and selling them in bottles? You have no training as an apothecary.’
I stuck out my chin, determined he would not dishearten me. ‘I will learn.’
Dowling sighed like I was his errant son. Few men had taken as many wrong turns as I. First my father sent me to Cambridge to study theology, where I learnt only that I would never be a religious man. Then I endured years of abject misery as a clerk at the Wakefield Tower, sorting an endless stream of old documents and records, feeling my soul leak steadily from my fingertips into cracked, yellow parchment. Finally I accepted a post in Lord Arlington’s intelligence service. Anticipating a life of derring-do and glorious adventure, instead I found myself performing more tedious, clerical duties, until Dowling and I were finally instructed to investigate the death of Thomas Wharton, Earl of St Albans.
‘I have nightmares, Davy,’ I whispered, staring out the window into the dusk. Of the night I led one of Wharton’s violent accomplices
into the churchyard at St Vedast’s. In the dream, I sat alone upon the stone bench beneath the giant oak, staring into the pitch-black night, listening to the screams of a man being tortured to death somewhere betwixt the gravestones. Then the screaming stopped and all fell silent. My heart beat loud against my ribs, drumming out a deafening rhythm for the murderer to hear. I didn’t move, terrified, unable to tell whether anyone approached. Then a vicious, young face appeared before me, looming from the darkness, lips curled in hungry satisfaction.
‘God help me!’ I slapped my palm against my chest, for the same face suddenly appeared framed in the window afore me before disappearing just as quick.
Dowling shifted his weight and thrust his face next to mine.
‘I thought I saw Withypoll,’ I gasped.
‘Withypoll is dead, Harry.’
So he was; he died a year ago. I left him lain upon the floor of the King’s wardrobe tied to the corpse of a dead woman, a woman killed by plague. It was not me who bound him, but I who left him, for fear he would kill me if released.
‘My nightmares are impatient.’ I tried to laugh. ‘Now they don’t wait for me to fall asleep.’
‘Too much ale,’ Dowling muttered. ‘Now, tell me how you plan to become an apothecary.’
I bowed my head, afraid to look again out of the window. I regarded my hand instead, flat against the thick grain of the sturdy oak table. ‘When I was at Cambridge I attended some lectures about plants, and the healing properties of several sorts. Don’t you remember I prepared your thumb with fleabane?’
‘You bought some powdered fleabane at the market and bandaged
my thumb,’ Dowling said, gently. ‘Which ability doesn’t make you an apothecary.’
‘No,’ I agreed. ‘But I know an old man who owns a shop on Walbrook Street. His son died of plague, as did his wife. I spoke to him today about buying his business, upon condition he teaches me first.’
Dowling grunted. ‘Do you have any money left?’
I snorted. ‘Barely.’ For Arlington never paid us, and my
savings were dwindling fast. ‘But yes, I do have enough, and once I am established I will earn a good living.’ My heart surged with new conviction. ‘Now is the time,’ I declared, ‘before it’s too late.’
‘My wife died of plague as well,’ piped up the stringy fellow to my right, leaning over, eager to engage in conversation. ‘With some it was quick and painless. I saw a man walk down the street, swinging his arms and tipping his hat, all smiles and “how-do-you-do’s”. Then he stopped and clasped a hand to his chest, like you just did.’ He stared, eyes wide as soup bowls. ‘Then he fell forwards, dead. When they rolled him over they found tokens on his chest.’
I nodded, thinking of a medic I watched fall face forwards into his dinner. ‘I once beheld a similar thing.’
‘Aye, well, he was lucky.’ The man stuck out his lower lip and banged his small fist upon the table. ‘My wife suffered six days afore she died. Awful to behold, the agony she endured. The night before Death took her, I had to fetch her from the river. She leapt from the window and ran naked down Creed Lane and on towards the river. She jumped in and I had to leap in after to fetch her out.’
‘She was hot, I suppose,’ I heard myself say.
The man’s little face collapsed in a fierce glare. ‘Aye, she was hot, of course she was hot. Why else should she jump in the river?’
‘For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.’ Dowling leant over and patted the man’s hand, which action seemed to frighten the poor fellow, for he sat back and regarded Dowling with timorous eye.
Did John Collis’s wife jump into the river? Behind each shadowed face around this table hid a lifetime of experience, tales of tragedy and joy, darkness and hope, few clues of which manifested themselves in tired expressions.
Not every man became wiser with sorrow. Some became angry and bitter. The world was a different place since the plague’s grim visitation. The King’s return to Whitehall symbolised a new beginning, yet the shadow of the Pest stretched long. Dead relatives, lost friends, missing neighbours. Though the City simmered quiet, behind that melancholy facade lurked fury. You heard it in the words of those who spoke of King and Parliament, of others that spoke of the Dutch with whom we were at war, or the Catholic French, or even God.
I was more afeared than angry, afeared of Lord Arlington. Officially, I still reported to him. He was an evil fellow, who plotted to kill us both at St Albans. Instead I saved his life and he hadn’t spoken to me since. I bided my time nestled in the sweet arms of the Mermaid every afternoon, not leaving while still I could walk. I shook my head and determined to think only happy thoughts.
‘How is Jane?’ asked Dowling.
‘She is well,’ I replied thoughtfully. ‘Her usual noxious self. When the plague arrived in London she nagged me incessantly to leave; after we left she nagged me incessantly to return. Now she complains that all men are self-pitying miseries.’ Me mostly.
Jane was my house servant. I fetched her to Cocksmouth out of the goodness of my big heart. There my mother lived in a small house
with her brother Robert and several pigs. They invited me to sleep in my dead grandmother’s room, out back, and arranged for Jane to live with an elderly woman in the village, who walked in her sleep and dribbled constantly out the side of her mouth. A dreadful place, yet the only safe haven I had access to. We lived in Purgatory for six months, with only each other to rely on for sane conversation. Though she maintained her usual foul temper with effortless ease, something stirred between us, something mysterious I could not yet comprehend. All I knew for sure was that we ended up in a warm, sticky embrace one quiet afternoon, the consequences of which were still to play themselves out.
‘We lay together,’ I whispered.
‘Lay where?’ he asked, hoarse.
‘Upon my jacket to begin with,’ I replied. ‘Though she quickly pulled me over onto the grass.’
with her?’ Dowling hissed, spittle spraying against my ear.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ I protested. ‘Nor did she.’
I blamed six months in Cocksmouth. Six months safe from plague but not so safe from a more insidious infection that penetrated a man’s skull and caused it to gently rot. Boredom. Never was I so bored in all my life. Isolated from tavern, playhouse and every other occupation man invented to keep himself entertained. Except one.
A strange, guttural whine emanated from Dowling’s open mouth. I barely smothered a loud laugh upon contemplating his horrified expression. Instead I snorted beer out of both nostrils.
He jabbed my shoulder with iron forefinger. ‘And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.’
‘Who was Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite?’ I struggled to recall.
‘He defiled Dinah, daughter of Jacob,’ Dowling kept poking me. ‘And in return the sons of Jacob insisted that every man in the city be circumcised, and when they had done it they came upon the city and slew every male.’
I nudged his finger away. ‘I did not defile her. We defiled each other.’
‘You are the master and she the servant,’ Dowling whispered a little too loud. John Collis turned his head slowly towards us. His wife already watched wide-eyed, repulsed. I tried to smile.
‘We shall talk about it later,’ I said, firmly. ‘When ye may circumcise me at your will.’
Dowling simmered, like a cauldron of hot water.
I bent my head towards him. ‘What is it like to be married?’ I whispered, regarding Collis and
wife out the corner of my eye. I saw no sign of celebration upon his ruddy chops. What force inspired him to enter into such intimate union with so little enthusiasm? ‘You’ve been married many years.’
Dowling perked up. ‘You are getting married?’
‘I didn’t say that,’ I answered quickly, rubbing my sore arm.
In truth, I didn’t know what I thought. I always maintained a strange fancy for Jane despite her constant ferocity, for I reckoned she couldn’t possibly be so angry with me unless she nurtured a passion that matched the intensity of her fury. If that passion was hatred, then why did she stay with me? A question I asked myself constantly. Yet before we travelled to Cocksmouth, never had I touched even a hair on her head with the end of my finger. To do so would have invited a swift and painful retribution. In Cocksmouth, though, she shared with me a different passion entirely.
‘I don’t think she would marry me,’ I said, for once we returned
to my little house on Bread Street she returned to old behaviours. I tried to stroke her hair once and she almost cut off one of my fingers with a chopping knife. I showed the finger to Dowling, the scar still angry and red.
I wondered, though. Would she marry me if I became an apothecary? A happy apothecary, who didn’t go to the Mermaid more than once or twice a week?
The stringy fellow stared. Collis watched me too, stiff-necked and mournful. There would be no flinging of the stocking tonight, nor escorting of the newly wedded to their bedchamber. Not by me anyway.
I thought of Jane again. Today was Thursday and Thursday brings crosses, I thought, becoming gloomy. God save us from more of those. Red crosses on doors marked whole streets at the worst of it. When Jane became infected, someone painted
door. A faint outline remained, despite my best efforts to brush every mark of it away. The legacy of plague would never be wholly removed.
I reached across to pour myself another cup of warm beer but Dowling pushed the jug away. ‘Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep and an idle soul shall suffer hunger.’