Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective
‘So you say,’ flashed Dorislaus. ‘However, we are all aware that something nasty is happening in Post House Yard, although we do not know what because our
will not talk about it.’
Vanderhuyden looked pained. ‘I cannot talk about my work, Isaac. It is confidential, as you know perfectly well. But even if I could chatter, there would be nothing to tell.’
‘Then why is Marshal Gery interested in the place?’ demanded Dorislaus.
‘I have no idea,’ Vanderhuyden snapped back. ‘But he is wasting his time. There are minor infractions, of course – mislaid packages, drunken letter-carriers – but nothing serious.’
He was distracted at that moment by an acquaintance who came to ask whether he had seen the comet. While he was replying, Dorislaus gripped Chaloner’s arm and spoke urgently in his ear.
‘If you have
any affection for your Earl, you will monitor what Gery does in his name. Clarendon’s position in government is tenuous, and he is fast losing the King’s favour. You see, something wicked
unfolding in the Post Office, no matter what Vanderhuyden says, and it may be used to harm your master.’
‘Why should you care?’ asked Chaloner, wondering why Dorislaus should encourage him to defy a ruthless, violent man like the marshal. Did Dorislaus want him in danger because he knew Chaloner had suspected him of treachery during the Commonwealth? But
could he know? Chaloner had never discussed his concerns with anyone. Of course, Dorislaus had always been astute, which was why he had been such a good spy.
‘Because he is the only member of the Privy Council with principles,’ replied Dorislaus. ‘And because I am certain that whatever is happening in the Post Office needs to be stopped. I wish I could tell you more, but information about the place has stopped flowing completely. And that in itself is suspicious. Do you not agree?’
Chaloner stirred his coffee. ‘I recommend you take your concerns to Spymaster Williamson.’
‘Williamson!’ spat Dorislaus in disdain. ‘He tries his best, but his operatives are fools.’
Chaloner continued to stir, watching the sludge at the bottom of his dish turn the liquid thick and muddy. All his instincts told him to distrust Dorislaus, yet what the man said made sense: the Earl
in a precarious position, and the stupid, blinkered Gery might well make it worse. Moreover, Dorislaus was not the only person to have expressed concerns about the Post Office.
He made up his mind. The Earl was not much of an employer, but he was all
Chaloner had, and loyalty had always been in his nature. If there was trouble afoot, then he had a duty to expose it and protect him. And if the rumours transpired to be groundless, then he would just have to ensure he was not caught disobeying the orders he had been given. It would not be easy, but he had faced greater challenges in the past. His mind made up, he swallowed the coffee and stood.
Deciding to begin his
enquiries immediately, Chaloner accompanied Dorislaus and Vanderhuyden to Post House Yard. It was a Friday, when mail left for the United Provinces, the German states and the Baltic, so people were arriving with letters to be carried overseas. However, it was much quieter than on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, when inland collections were made.
Chaloner walked to the crater, joining the score or so spectators who ringed it. An image of the cart was etched vividly in his mind, but everything else remained frustratingly hazy. He tried again to recall the musician, but nothing came other than a vague sense of height and mediocre talent.
‘Did anyone here actually witness the blast?’ Vanderhuyden was enquiring. ‘I heard it from the Post Office, but there was nothing to see except debris and smoke by the time I came out.’
‘I did,’ replied one man softly. It was Roger Palmer, the Earl of Castlemaine, holding a bundle of letters. Small cuts on his hands and face told of his close brush with the incident.
happened?’ asked Dorislaus with brazenly ghoulish curiosity. ‘I have only been privy to second-hand accounts so far.’
‘I was blown over.’ Palmer spoke reluctantly, as if the horror of the incident was still with him. ‘But it might have been much worse. Someone shouted a warning, which allowed me take the few steps away that saved my life.’
‘Does anyone know who set the explosion?’ asked Dorislaus, looking around keenly.
The onlooker who replied was Major Stokes, an elderly officer from Cromwell’s army who lived in Long Acre. Chaloner kept rooms in the same house, which not only provided a bolthole for when he was working on dangerous cases, but was somewhere to escape from Hannah. Stokes rented the apartment below, and had earned Chaloner’s immediate affection by complimenting his viol playing. He had a lined, kindly face with an old-fashioned moustache and faded blue eyes.
‘The city is alive with unrest at the moment,’ he said soberly. ‘So any number of sects might have been responsible – papists, Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Diggers. It might even have been a courtier, just to make mischief.’
‘No,’ said Palmer firmly. ‘No one from Court is so wicked. Nor is any Catholic.’
‘Perhaps it was the apprentices then,’ suggested Stokes. ‘They have been restless of late.’
‘I think they would be more inclined to settle matters with their fists than with barrels of powder,’ said Palmer, and Chaloner was inclined to agree. ‘However, it may have been John Fry. There are rumours that he has been writing letters, encouraging people to sedition and treason …’
‘Yes, he has
promised to lead a great rebellion,’ acknowledged Stokes. ‘But it—’
‘Then he is a fool,’ said Palmer sharply. He turned back to Dorislaus. ‘I wish I could remember more about the moments preceding the blast, but a musician was playing a flageolet. My attention was on him, so I saw nothing to help identify the perpetrators of this nasty affair.’
‘What happened to him?’ asked Chaloner.
‘He did not run far when the alarm sounded.’ Palmer’s expression was distant as he searched his memory. He pointed. ‘Just to the trees in that garden. But he made himself scarce afterwards. I do not blame him. This city has a nasty habit of turning innocent bystanders into scapegoats.’
An innocent bystander who waited to see what happened before making good his escape, mused Chaloner. It did not sound very ‘innocent’ to him. ‘What did he look like?’
Palmer frowned. ‘Tall, I think, with a hat that shaded his face. But all street entertainers look alike to me, and I would not recognise him again.’
‘I knew the Alibond brothers from when I worked here as a clerk,’ said Dorislaus. ‘I would like to see their killer brought to justice, so I hope there are witnesses who
see something that will allow the culprits to be identified.’
‘Are they the ones who were too fat to run?’ asked Stokes. He shuddered. ‘Poor souls!’
‘They were hefty,’ agreed Dorislaus. ‘The other victims were a fellow named Joyce, who was one of Sir Henry Wood’s servants, and a pair of beggars.’
Chaloner vaguely recalled a man emerging from Wood’s mansion to ask the flageolet player to stop, as it was unseemly
to have music and laughter outside a house of mourning. Had he been the victim? It seemed likely.
Because it was open and he was eager to see what he could learn about it, Chaloner went into the General Letter Office, entering with a group of chattering Swedish merchants. It was a large L-plan building, three storeys high, with the lower part of the L being longer and wider than the upright bit. This meant that the bulk of the rooms were at the front, and it was from these that the postal service conducted all its business. The smaller, older, more decrepit wing was rumoured to have been disused since the reign of King James. There was a high wall at the back, and the fourth side of the square was formed by the rear part of Storey’s cottage. A modest courtyard occupied the space in the middle.
Customers walked through the imposing front door into a spacious, elegantly pillared chamber known as the Letter Hall. ‘Window-men’ sat at counters at the far end, ready to receive post – and receive money, too, if a client was rash enough to prepay for a delivery. A door to the left, always kept locked, opened into a short hallway that led to the Sorting Room and the offices in which the postal clerks and their assistants worked.
Chaloner took up station behind one of the columns, watching customers queue at the windows. Palmer was among them, and Chaloner was impressed when the nobleman waited his turn rather than use his status to jump to the front. To pass the time, people discussed the explosion, and there was a minor panic when someone spotted an unattended sack. Palmer was the only one brave enough to look inside, and there were sheepish grins when he announced that it contained wastepaper.
But there was only
so much Chaloner could learn by lurking in the Letter Hall: he needed to visit the chambers beyond. He waited until the Swedish merchants shielded him from the other clients – they were too engrossed in a debate about import taxes to pay any attention to him – then bent to pick the lock with an efficiency born of long experience.
He stepped quickly through the door, and crept along the corridor to the Sorting Room. He was surprised to find it empty; he had imagined it would be busy at that time of day. Leading off it were the offices belonging to the ‘Clerks of the Road’, the men with responsibility for the six great highways out of London: Holyhead, Bristol, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Yarmouth and Dover. Each was overflowing with documents, but Chaloner did not attempt to rifle through them. There were simply too many, and it would be better to return at a time when he was less likely to be caught.
A flight of stairs led to the two upper storeys, and a brief inspection told him that these rooms were occupied by minor officials. Meanwhile, the disused south wing was separated from the main building by sturdy doors at each level. The locks on each were substantial, and the ground floor had the added protection of a guard. Chaloner understood why: no Postmaster would want burglars entering through the abandoned part and making off with the post.
Feeling he had pushed his luck far enough – it was broad daylight, after all, and not a sensible time to have invaded – Chaloner turned to leave. He had just reached the door that would take him back to the Letter Hall when it opened.
He was confronted by two men who wore the staid garb of postal clerks, but
whose physique and demeanour suggested they were something else entirely. Both were large, compact fellows who carried themselves like soldiers, and neither had the inky fingers that Chaloner usually associated with people who earned their living among documents.
‘You should not be here,’ said the first, slightly shorter than his companion and lighter on his feet. Chaloner sensed he would be the most dangerous. ‘It is off limits to the public.’
‘I came to post a letter,’ replied Chaloner in Dutch, grinning inanely in the hope that they would dismiss him as a witless foreigner who had taken a wrong turn. It was, after all, a day when mail was collected for the United Provinces.
‘He is French, Smartfoot,’ hissed the second with immediate suspicion. ‘A papist spy.’
‘No, I am not,’ said Chaloner, still using Dutch in the hope of averting trouble. ‘Surely you can hear the difference between French and Dutch? They sound nothing alike.’
‘Let him out, Lamb,’ sighed Smartfoot. ‘Do not worry – he cannot even speak English.’
‘He might, though,’ said Lamb, still regarding Chaloner with rank distrust. ‘Perhaps we should take him somewhere to find out.’
‘No.’ Smartfoot stopped his companion from grabbing Chaloner by stepping between them. ‘He sounds more like one of those Swedes than a Frenchman, and the Post Office makes a lot of money from them. We cannot afford to offend any.’
‘No one will find out,’ said Lamb dangerously. ‘And I want to interrogate him.’
‘I am sure
you do,’ muttered Smartfoot, opening the door and waving Chaloner through it. ‘But we have more important matters to attend than stray Swedes. Now forget about him and follow me.’
Chaloner was just leaving the Post Office when he met Gery. The marshal scowled, and Freer laid a warning hand on his shoulder, one that was angrily shrugged off.
‘What are you doing here?’ Gery demanded.
‘Sending a letter,’ lied Chaloner, although all his attention was on the third man in their party.
Samuel Morland was a small, fair, slim man of about forty. He had been Spymaster Thurloe’s secretary during the Commonwealth, and his betrayal would have been understandable if he had been treated badly, but Thurloe had been patient, kind and generous. Chaloner had forgotten quite how much he loathed the fellow until he saw the spiteful little face with its slyly calculating eyes. It surprised him not at all that the slippery clerk had managed to inveigle himself a post with the Earl of Clarendon, although he felt his master’s security had just suffered a serious setback.
‘To a friend you made on your recent visit to Sweden?’ Morland asked pleasantly. He was dressed in the latest Court fashion, and looked wealthier than either of his companions. ‘I envy you your travels. It must be fascinating to spy on so many different countries.’
‘I was not spying,’ said Chaloner shortly. Morland’s voice had been deliberately loud, and the Swedish merchants had turned to stare at him. Chaloner hoped Smartfoot and Lamb would not appear, because there would be trouble for certain if they heard him speaking English. ‘I accompanied Clarendon’s eldest
son on a diplomatic mission.’
‘You know him, Morland?’ asked Gery, suspicion taking the place of anger as he looked from one to the other. ‘How?’
‘From the Commonwealth.’ Malice flashed in Morland’s eyes. ‘When I was looking after the interests of Royalists, and he was not.’
Chaloner might have said that Morland had been as fervent a Parliamentarian as any until it had served his purpose to change sides, but there was no point. Gery would not believe him, and Morland was far too slippery to be bested in a verbal battle.
‘It was a long time ago,’ said Freer soothingly. ‘It does not matter now.’