Authors: C. S. Quinn
‘I once tried to tempt Lily to work for me,’ Mother Mitchell was saying. ‘Before I discovered her true nature.’ She sucked hard on her pipe and looked as if she might say more. Then she shook her head and blew out smoke.
‘Do not chase that girl,’ warned Mother Mitchell. ‘She is a bad business, and a gypsy besides.’
Charlie considered this. Gypsies were godless people. They were lynched in the countryside. Londoners crossed themselves if they saw one.
‘Lily Boswell might even be a match for you, Charlie Tuesday,’ added Mother Mitchell with a small smile. ‘She can pick a pocket fast as lightning, and is as good a card sharp as I’ve ever seen.’
‘Better than me?’
Mother Mitchell smiled. ‘Even so, she is dangerous.’
‘Where is this Lily now?’ asked Charlie.
Mother Mitchell rearranged her bulk on the gold-legged chair. ‘You should not wish to find her, Charlie,’ she repeated. ‘Not where she goes. Even a thief taker would likely be in danger.’
‘I have friends everywhere,’ said Charlie, extracting another few coins.
‘London Bridge,’ said Mother Mitchell, taking the money and closing her lips back around her pipe. ‘On the west side is a clutch of tailor’s shops. Take the third. It has a blue door. In the back are gaming tables. Ill-hidden, but safe enough as they are managed by murderers and cut-throats. The last I knew, Lily was employed there. They are always in need of a handsome girl who is quick with cards to cheat the men from their money.’
Charlie nodded thoughtfully. London Bridge was a treacherous place even for a thief taker. Hardened criminals routinely escaped into the milieu of ancient wooden buildings. Murdered corpses were thrown nightly from the stone arches into the dark waters of the Thames.
Mother Mitchell seemed amused at his discomfort. ‘Why is it you must find her?’ she asked, puffing steadily.
Charlie hesitated. ‘She knows the symbol on my key.’
Mother Mitchell’s eyebrows raised then lowered again. ‘Still seeking your mysterious lost papers?’
Charlie was turning his key in a tightly balled fist.
‘My mother died for those papers.’
‘A marriage certificate for Blackstone and his wife. Seems a strange thing to die for.’ Mother Mitchell met his eyes, and something maternal passed over her face.
‘Do you remember when you came to me as a young boy escaping the Foundling Orphan Home?’ she asked. ‘When you worked a few errands for this house?’
‘You told me you were homeless,’ said Mother Mitchell. ‘Do you remember what I said?’
‘You said, home is where the heart is.’
Mother Mitchell nodded. ‘Home is where the heart is,’ she repeated. ‘Whatever those papers hold, they will not tell you who you are. Let it be.’
‘I did not realise you’d become philosophical in your old age,’ said Charlie.
Mother Mitchell shrugged good-naturedly. She caught his expression and sighed.
‘I’ve told you all I know of the Sealed Knot,’ she said. ‘They were a group of nobles formed during the Civil War. That was seventeen years ago. Whatever purpose they had is likely long won or lost.’
‘Then why would Lily recognise their symbol?’ pressed Charlie. ‘She said something of a brotherhood,’ he added, remembering the fear in her face.
Mother Mitchell huffed a little.
‘You cannot move for secret fraternities in London,’ she pointed out. ‘The guilds all have some foolish initiation or other. Men love to dress in cloaks and pretend they know secrets.’
Charlie smiled, acknowledging the truth of this. ‘She was asking about a Magnus Opus,’ he said. ‘In the coffee house.’
‘Alchemy?’ said Mother Mitchell disapprovingly.
‘You tell me,’ said Charlie. ‘It’s something to do with making gold.’
‘Magnus Opus means “Great Work”,’ said Mother Mitchell. ‘Some of my nobles prattle about it. They squander fortunes in search of some alchemy secret.’
‘Do you believe in it?’ asked Charlie.
‘I believe in gold I can see.’ She thought for a moment. ‘It doesn’t surprise me,’ she said, ‘that Lily Boswell makes business in that silly myth. Ample opportunity to fool men from coins.’
‘But how might she know of the Sealed Knot?’
Mother Mitchell looked thoughtful. ‘If Lily Boswell knows something of the Sealed Knot, then you truly should forget your past,’ she said finally. ‘Dark and dangerous things surround that girl like spectres.’
They were interrupted suddenly by the rustle of skirts. Charlie looked up to see a round-faced young girl, decked in the most incredible finery for the time of day and thickly painted with make-up.
Mother Mitchell looked up sharply. ‘Why do you come unannounced, child?’ she asked. The girl yawned in an unconcerned kind of way.
‘I need the carriage,’ she said. ‘Mr Gowrie will be at Bishops Gate today.’
Charlie was watching the girl in fascination. He had never got over the strangeness of hearing the thick accent of the slums in the finery of high society.
‘Mr Gowrie was last night at Crutched Friars Mansion,’ said Mother Mitchell. ‘Do you know what they do there, girl? They fume mercury. For syphilis. Your Mr Gowrie will have lost his nose and lips to the pox before the year is out.’
The girl put her hands on her hips.
‘A woman cannot catch the pox from a man, you told me yourself,’ she retorted.
‘In any case, there was news of a fire last night,’ added Mother Mitchell. ‘On Pudding Lane. The smoke may cause the Smithfield Market animals to bolt. I shall not risk my carriage.’
‘The Mayor himself attended that fire,’ protested the girl. ‘He said a woman could piss on it. Pudding Lane is close by the river. They’ll have easily doused the flames by now.’
‘We’ll see,’ said Mother Mitchell with a wave of her hand. ‘Without the King’s authority, people won’t pull down houses for firebreaks. Pudding Lane is dry wood all the way to Cheapside.’
Charlie rose to his feet as their voices pitched to a full-scale argument. Neither woman noticed. As he slipped back into the hallway he could hear the heated exchange raging.
He should make for London Bridge quickly, he decided. Pudding Lane was nearby. Charlie headed back down the gilded hallway mentally mapping his route. Fire could spread fast in the city. And paper burned.
The smoke from Pudding Lane was sticking in Charlie’s throat. Cinders whirled in the air. He eyed the direction of the blaze. Pudding Lane had once been a grisly backstreet of cheap butcheries, but recent years had seen fragrant bake-houses replace stinking meat shops. The whole street would be ashes by the time the fire was extinguished.
From his bankside vantage point, Charlie redirected his attention to London Bridge. Even with his connections to the criminal underclass, he avoided the crossing. The farthing for a boat to cross was one of the few financial outlays he paid willingly.
The bridge had become an outlaw village, its twin banks of high buildings sheltering criminals in their dark embrace. The towering wooden edifices of shops and lodgings were daily threatened with fire, collapse or wholesale consumption by rats. There was hardly a visitor to the city who had not had his pockets picked on the crossing.
Scattered at the entrance were stalls selling cheap ribbon and lace. They crawled with Catholic beggars, evident by their long hair, rosaries and colourful clothing. Civil War veterans hobbled on wooden limbs or sat with stumps splayed accusatorially outwards.
Charlie stopped to buy a pipe of gin from an elderly woman with ulcerated legs. Then, taking a few short gulps of the fiery liquid, he stepped out of the light and into the dark of London Bridge.
A dank smell closed around him. Drivers armed with heavy pistols drove their horses on into the murky depths, whilst a ragged and wild-eyed populace now outnumbered the bargain-ribbon shoppers on the outskirts. Roadside sellers here sold sheaves of tobacco leaf and bales of coarse wool. A pitiful little meat stand had a blood-spattered board of roughly butchered chicken and a thick stench of guts piled beneath.
Charlie noticed several pairs of eyes had begun regarding him with interest. It was time to get off the thoroughfare.
He spied a yellow-faced girl, barely more than a toddler, and beckoned her over. As she approached he saw that in her free arm she clutched a baby, its head lolling large from a tiny rag-swaddled body. Charlie crouched down and extracted a farthing from the carefully concealed purse in his shirt.
‘Do you know the tailor’s with the blue door?’ he asked.
She nodded mutely.
‘Can you take me there, off the main street?’ He pressed a coin into the filthy hand. Her face broke into a wide smile and she made an odd delighted little curtsey.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said attaching her hand to his with surprising strength.
She dragged him bodily along, the baby’s head swaying as they weaved through the thickly lodged stalls and into a narrow alleyway.
They followed a darker and smaller lane which ran parallel to the main street, exposing the backs of buildings which were almost entirely rotted away.
As they emerged back on to the bustling bridge the girl pointed proudly to a swinging sign showing a needle and thread over a blue door.
‘There,’ she said, grinning as Charlie handed over another coin. He looked at the parchment-skinned baby whose features were making expressions in slow motion.
‘Wait,’ he said as the girl turned to go. He handed over the piece of cheese he’d been saving for his midday meal and she beamed before vanishing back into the alley.
Charlie took in the shop warily. It looked to be a serious gambling den. Two mangy dogs were tied by the door, growling over a muddy bone. The windows were open holes with wooden bars and a high blood splatter decorated the frontage.
Charlie paused to check no one was looking before dousing himself in the dregs of his gin pipe. Then he pushed open the door and stepped inside.
A tailor sat cross-legged on the dirty floor. He looked up as Charlie entered.
‘I take no new business,’ said the tailor.
Charlie dropped into a practised hustle, playing the shifty-eyed gambler and scratching behind his ear as though his lice were bothering him.
‘I come for the gaming tables,’ he said in a low voice. His host’s expression drew even less welcoming.
‘There is no gaming here,’ he said. ‘Best you try your luck further along.’
‘I have coin enough to play any man,’ said Charlie, thickening his tone to a drunken lilt, and making a lurch forward. The tailor recoiled slightly at the smell of gin, then, without taking his eyes off Charlie, rang a small bell at his side. Almost immediately a burly man cut deep with scars appeared.
Charlie quelled the urge to run. The large man sidled close to the tailor, and to his relief, Charlie heard snatches of ‘new’ and ‘addled’.
There was a long pause as the guard assessed Charlie.
‘What do you play?’ he asked finally.
‘Anything I may place a coin on,’ said Charlie loudly.
The guard gave an amused grunt.
‘We play at Hazard,’ he said. ‘The price is ten shillings a throw.’
Charlie nodded, but his stomach twisted. Only a handful of villains could afford those stakes. Worse still, they played at dice, so his card sharping would not help him.
‘Something amiss?’ challenged the guard.
Charlie shook his head, making to step past him. ‘Ten a throw,’ he replied. ‘I have enough.’
The guard held out a rough hand. ‘And a shilling to see inside,’ he added.
Charlie kept his face impassive as he handed over the money. He had barely enough left for a single throw.
‘That way,’ said the guard, dropping his hand.
Charlie headed through a doorway closed by sacking, and found himself not in a room, but a half-finished shack tacked on to the back of the tailor’s shop. The three-sided shelter of rotting wood opened out on to the Thames, and a stiff autumn breeze rolled in off the boat-laden river.
Under this drafty refuge the gamesters huddled on their haunches, flinging grubby dice and coins into the centre. Charlie noticed with a sinking feeling that Lily was not among them. He had until his money or luck ran out to discover her whereabouts.
Charlie squatted among the men, noticing inch-thick slices of whirling river between the ill-fitted floorboards. Engrossed in their game, they barely looked up.
There were five gamblers in total, and all bore the signs of being staunch villains. Magpie-markers of ill-gotten wealth glinted on them. A tricorn hat here, silver shoe-buckles there. Two looked barely old enough to be considered men at all. They must be pickpockets, trained from when they were old enough to walk. The others looked older and tougher. One wore a worn leather eye-patch. Another’s bald head was patched with silver from a skull fracture.
The round of dice came to an end. Slowly they scrutinised him, one by one.
Recognition sparked in the single eye of a man with an eye-patch. ‘I know you,’ he said. ‘You are the thief taker.’
King Charles lay sprawled in bed. It was already mid-morning but the wine seemed to still be swirling in his head. Louise Keroulle was beside him, her naked plump limbs sprawled out from the sheets. His eyes rested on her sleeping face. Louise’s childlike features looked so innocent in repose. He never would have guessed the demanding rages of the woken woman.
In the middle distance a door slammed. And before Charles could register what it might mean, two large hands grabbed Louise’s soft curling hair.
He sat up in alarm as his mistress’s head was wrenched back and she was pulled bodily from the bed. For a fractional moment Charles thought the dreams had returned and he was in the middle of a waking nightmare. Cromwell’s armed men. His father’s head rolling on the scaffold.
Then, as Louise crashed loudly to the rug, he saw a familiar face. Barbara Castlemaine was wrestling a now wide-awake Louise from the sheet in which she was still partially wrapped.
Charles watched in dull amazement as Louise shrieked in outrage, her little fingers digging into the other woman’s auburn hair. Barbara batted her away with a blow that made Charles wince, and followed up with a succession of ringing slaps.
Charles had not seen Barbara for many months, not since their argument over the dukedom he’d given their third child. He should have foreseen she would burst back into his life in a storm of violence and retribution.
‘Barbara . . .’ began Charles. But his attempt to placate seemed to make her angrier.
‘Get out!’ Barbara raged at Louise. ‘You dirty French whore.’
Barbara was tall and well built to Louise’s short chubbiness, with an angry streak which cast the other woman’s rages as dull petulance. She had seized the skin on Louise’s rounded upper arm, and in her fury seemed not to realise this prevented her opponent acceding her wishes.
‘You call me whore?’ blustered Louise, ‘Where is your husband? How many bastard children have you had by the King?’
In answer Barbara delivered a blow to the side of Louise’s head.
Louise’s face cycled through fear, outrage and affront. She looked at Barbara, then to Charles.
‘I cannot deal with Barbara when she is like this,’ admitted Charles with less regret than he might have. ‘Better to do what she says.’
Louise was breathing heavily, her small breasts rising and falling. Barbara released the unthinking hold on her arm, causing Louise to fall again.
‘What is she doing here?’ Barbara raged.
Charles sat up a little in bed. At the height of her famous temper, his longest-serving mistress was a gorgeous spectacle. The sultry violet eyes smouldered in fierce fury, and her copper hair blazed. She put Charles in mind of an avenging goddess.
‘She was keeping me company,’ he said mildly, ‘whilst you were bedding the rest of the court.’
Louise had risen to her feet and snatched up a corner of sheet to cover herself. Her eyes flicked between the King and Barbara.
The movement drew Barbara’s attention and she made another enraged grab towards Louise’s curling hair.
‘You fat French bitch!’ shouted Barbara, missing by an inch as Louise darted out of reach with surprising speed for her size. Louise burst into tears and a torrent of French expletives poured forth. Charles raised a calming hand, but she rushed from the chamber, pulling the sheet tighter around her body as she ran.
With her opponent vanquished, Barbara had calmed. She seated herself on the King’s large bed, arranging her skirts carefully.
Charles was still mentally calculating how much it would cost to buy back Louise’s good humour. The people had started to openly protest about his spending on women. As a Catholic, Louise’s expenditure was particularly resented.
‘She ran fast for a chubby girl,’ Barbara observed, her shapely eyebrows furrowed.
Charles gave a sigh which was mixed with a laugh.
‘What do you want, Barbara?’
She tossed her head coquettishly.
‘Why do you imagine I want something?’
‘You always want something,’ said Charles evenly. ‘All women do. Money. Jewels. Titles for your children.’
children,’ said Barbara, anger rising in her voice. She seemed to check herself and her voice softened.
‘Perhaps I wanted to see you,’ she suggested. ‘Perhaps I missed you.’
She put a hand up to his shaved head.
‘You cut your hair,’ she said sadly.
‘Six years on the throne is all it has taken to turn my hair white.’
Encouraged, Barbara leaned over and took his long white fingers in hers.
‘Do you remember,’ she began, ‘the night we met, where you put these fingers?’
Charles swallowed. He had forgotten how quickly Barbara’s conversation could turn to seduction. It was one of her most alluring qualities, and had kept her in his bed for so many years, despite a succession of beautiful young women.
Barbara leaned forward so her face was level with his. Even at twenty-seven, having birthed four of his children, she was so very, very beautiful.
‘I was barely sixteen,’ she whispered, moving his hand down. ‘When I met the exiled King. Roaming in Holland with not a penny to his name. I was the only one,’ she breathed, stroking his cheek. ‘The only girl who truly loved you before you were King. You need never doubt me.’
Her hand had moved to her skirts, and Charles noticed the ring he had bought her was missing. The jewel had been bought at great cost from the Spanish Ambassador. He had heard rumours she’d sold it, but had not believed it until now.
‘Tell me why you came back,’ replied Charles, stopping her hand. In addition to seducing half his court, Barbara often hawked his most expensive gifts as revenge for his philandering.
‘Why should Lucy Walter’s son have a dukedom?’ Barbara demanded.
Charles shook his head slowly and sighed. Always it came back to this.
‘We have talked of this,’ he said. ‘Monmouth is my eldest son and I have great love for him.’
Barbara’s wide mouth set hard like stone.
‘You don’t help his character,’ she said, ‘with your indulgences.’
Charles waved a hand. ‘I was a young man once,’ he said. ‘He’ll grow out of the giddiness.’
‘You swore you loved me best,’ spat Barbara. ‘You swore it. Is this what the word of a King is worth?’
Charles spread out his hands. ‘Lucy and I were barely eighteen. She was nothing to me. You can’t be jealous of a fifteen-year-old boy. Our sons have dukedoms too.
Is this why you came back?’ he asked, his voice softening. ‘To start the old wars again?’
Barbara tilted her head and smiled a little. It was his favourite expression of hers. The one that reminded him, despite everything she’d done, Barbara loved him in her way.
‘I fear for you, Charles,’ she said after a moment. ‘What happened to the young man I met in Holland? Who swore that when he was King, he would right his country’s wrongs?’
‘He encountered politics,’ said Charles sadly. ‘What happened to the young girl who waited for me naked, in the upstairs of a Dutch tavern?’
‘She had four of your children,’ returned Barbara with a smile. Then she frowned.
‘You have heard of the fire?’
Charles nodded. ‘A bakery by the river. The Mayor says a woman could piss on it.’
‘There is a gale blown in to fan the flames,’ said Barbara. ‘It’s still burning on Pudding Lane. And there is a Catholic faction who claim the blaze as their vengeance.’
‘Every day there is a new rebel faction,’ he said. ‘The Protestants hate me for protecting the Catholics. The Catholics hate me for not doing enough. You can’t move in London for men calling for my head.’
‘This faction is different,’ said Barbara, her violet eyes serious. ‘They call themselves the Sealed Knot.’
Charles stiffened. ‘How do you know this?’ he asked.
‘I hear all the whispers,’ said Barbara. ‘There’s nothing talked of in court that passes me by.’
There was a long pause.
‘You never told me,’ said Barbara finally, ‘why the Sealed Knot followed you to Holland.’
Charles was silent and thoughtful.
‘I felt so sure they were all dead,’ he murmured finally. ‘All but Amesbury.’ His mouth had set in a hard, grim line.
Barbara chewed a finger. ‘I will send for Amesbury,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he can intercede. They were all dangerous men,’ she added. ‘You must be careful.’ Her eyes were softer now, full of fear.
Charles felt a spreading sense of fear. Barbara had no idea how dangerous. Or how deeply he was in their debt.
Sensing his unease, Barbara’s soft fingers closed on his. Charles kissed them gratefully. She always could read him better than anyone else.
‘I’m glad you’re back,’ he murmured.
Barbara smiled and folded him in her arms. Charles breathed a little easier, letting her comfort him.
‘Do we know anything more?’ he asked. ‘About the Sealed Knot faction?’
Barbara shook her head.
‘Only that they issue demands like all the others.’
‘What demands do they make?’
‘Give back what is ours,’ said Barbara. ‘Or we’ll burn London to the ground.’