Authors: C. S. Quinn
The gaoler struggled in his restraints. The walls of the Clink prison seemed to be closing in on him.
Blackstone moved to the brazier of pitch and lifted a smoking ladle.
‘My wife, Teresa,’ he said, ‘should have liked it down here.’
The gaoler’s eyes widened slightly.
‘She was very beautiful. Long blonde hair,’ Blackstone gestured a sweep along his back. ‘White as she aged, but still lovely in its way. She died. Last year.’
‘I’m sorry for it,’ stammered the gaoler.
Blackstone waved away the condolences. A sudden memory of his dead wife lurched out from the shadowy corners of the cell.
‘Your sister is dead.’ Teresa’s eyes were open wide. ‘I killed her.’
Her mouth made a bizarre smile. She held a bloodied corn dolly in her hands. ‘You mustn’t say such things,’ said Blackstone carefully. ‘My sister’s death was a tragedy. It had nothing to do with you.’
‘You thought your sister an angel,’ replied Teresa. ‘But she speaks to me from the grave. She wears a dark crown now.’
Teresa smiled up at him evilly. She shifted her candle and Blackstone saw something ranged around her. Thirteen wedding blessings. The wooden statues were burned to charred nubs. She’d arranged them in a kind of circle and symbols had been drawn in the ash.
‘Your sister told me everything,’ Teresa said, staring down at the corn dolly. ‘When I took her blood. She told me what your father did to her. How he defiled her.’
Blackstone’s stomach turned icy. He tried to ease the corn dolly from her hands but Teresa pulled it away protectively. ‘Powerful blood,’ she was saying, ‘powerful blood. I took your sister’s blood. Now her dark crown is mine.’
‘Teresa . . .’ Blackstone tried to reach for her, but she drew back, hugging the corn dolly to her.
Blackstone shook the images away. He needed to gather his thoughts. ‘She was a good wife and loyal,’ he continued. ‘Noble blood. Raised properly in a Catholic family.’ Blackstone’s eyes flickered slightly. ‘Women must have such strictures,’ he said, ‘or they fall to their baser natures.’ Revulsion was twisting his bloated features.
‘No church will bury her body,’ Blackstone continued. ‘They say she made a suicide.’ Thoughts seemed to crowd into his head suddenly, hot and heavy. He’d survived plague. But recovery toyed with his memories, rending and spitting back fragments.
Blackstone remembered nothing of the months before the illness. He’d come to consciousness in a churchyard. Then returned home to find Teresa’s body. Her hands on a knife struck deep in her belly.
Had she driven the blade herself?
Blackstone couldn’t remember.
‘A great sin against God,’ offered the gaoler.
Blackstone’s eyes flashed.
‘Things happened to my wife during the war,’ he said. ‘Protestant men got to her. I never found them,’ he continued, eyeing the ladle of pitch thoughtfully. ‘After the horrors that befell my family, I thought I could protect Teresa. I couldn’t.’ He shook his head. ‘Dark cellars. They were her favourites. She didn’t like to go outside.’
He moved back to where the gaoler sat and brought his face closer.
‘So when I see a Protestant like yourself,’ he said, holding the ladle high, ‘good short hair, plain clothes, I think you could have been one of those men. You fought for Cromwell, didn’t you?’
The gaoler opened his mouth to reply just as Blackstone ladled the hot liquid into his lap. He screamed. A high squealing sound.
‘That’s how I used to make it right with myself,’ said Blackstone. ‘I thought to myself that you could have been one of those men.’
The pitch was cooling and the gaoler breathed hard. His eyes rose to Blackstone, pleading.
‘Now,’ said Blackstone. ‘I think of the boy you hurt. Jacob. I see his face when I explain to him how revenge was taken. That he needn’t be afraid and helpless any longer.’
Blackstone ladled more pitch on to the arms of the chair. Then he puddled it around the legs.
‘You could have been,’ he said. ‘You might not even know it. How many Catholic women did you have? As a soldier during the war?’
Blackstone shook his head at the sweating gaoler. ‘After all the men you’ve broken. You’d be one of the easy ones.’
He sat back looking hungrily at the gaoler’s face.
‘Two years I sat where you sat,’ continued Blackstone. ‘I knew each tool and implement like the old enemies they were. And I never breathed a word of my brothers. You’ve given everything away already.’
‘Pitch cools quickly,’ said Blackstone as the gaoler breathed hard in fear. ‘But it will catch alight with the smallest flame.’
‘No!’ the gaoler shouted in terror and began to buck in his seat.
Blackstone brought out a small sack of coins and rested them on the table. ‘From the time of the old King,’ he explained, bringing out a handful and letting them trickle back into the sack. ‘Lead tokens.’ He removed a battered coin and examined the stamp. ‘No longer legal tender.’
He looked at them thoughtfully. The gaoler sat motionless now, uncertain as how to reply.
Blackstone removed a glass bottle from his cloak. It was filled with a dark liquid.
The gaoler began to twist in the chair.
‘Bringer of Death,’ said Blackstone, holding it up to the light. Sweat broke out on the gaoler’s lip.
‘This is a prison,’ said the gaoler, ‘you must do no dark magic or devilment here. It’s the law.’
Blackstone moved to stand behind the gaoler and moved his chair slightly.
‘I told you I was here a long time,’ he murmured. ‘I sat here. Where you sit.’ He adjusted the chair again. ‘Exactly here.’ Blackstone’s eyes panned for something on the far wall. Then he pointed.
‘See that mark?’ Blackstone moved to a spot on the stone wall which bore a splatter of aged blood.
‘I remember looking at it, when I sat where you do now.’ He touched the blood. ‘I remember looking at it so long it seemed to shift and move. I fancied it was the shape of an angel. And I thought . . . I thought if there was a merciful God, he would give the angel a sword, so he might take off my head.’
Blackstone tilted his gaze.
‘But the mark is still here, as you see.’ He paused. ‘It doesn’t look like an angel to me any longer.’ Blackstone gave the blood-stain a last curious tap. ‘Just a mark on a wall.’
He moved back to the bag of coins and the dark bottle.
‘So,’ said Blackstone. ‘I learned to make my own holy angels. And devils.’
He raised the bottle and swirled it. ‘The most common of substances,’ he said, ‘can have surprising uses. I call this liquid Bringer of Death.’
Blackstone moved nearer the gaoler. ‘The slightest drop will burn the skin,’ he said. The gaoler shrank back. ‘Add metal,’ said Blackstone, ‘and it will make a demon – a devil’s breath which glows blue when you light it.’
Blackstone regarded the Bringer of Death. ‘And if you capture the demon inside a bottle,’ he continued, ‘you don’t even need a flame. It grows so hot, the Bringer of Death fires on its own.’
The gaoler’s eyes were tracking from Blackstone to the bottle, trying to understand what was happening.
Blackstone unstoppered the bottle and dropped a handful of coins inside. The liquid began hissing furiously. A jet of steam issued forth.
‘The devil’s breath,’ smiled Blackstone, re-stoppering the bottle. He gave it a shake as the liquid continued to boil furiously inside.
Blackstone placed the bottle in the gaoler’s lap.
‘I’ve timed it,’ he said. ‘You can never be exact, of course. But my estimate is you have twenty breaths left in your body. Then the bottle will explode in flame and blue fire will pour forth.’
He smiled at the gaoler.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘after I leave this room. Do you think that angel will come for you?’
The guard was tugging furiously at the leather straps.
‘No,’ said Blackstone turning to leave. ‘I don’t think so either.’
‘Your key,’ said Sebastian, eyeing Charlie. ‘The crown and knots. They make a circle within a circle. The crown is the square. And this is a triangle. See?’
Sebastian dipped his finger in the crucible and drew a rough shape in soot.
‘The Philosopher’s Stone,’ he said, pointing. ‘The shape of your key is the same. It’s hidden in the crown and knots. But it’s there.’
Charlie looked at his key. Sebastian was right. The shape matched. ‘What does it mean?’ he asked.
‘The story of the Philosopher’s Stone is clouded in myth,’ said Sebastian. ‘Some say deliberately so. It’s said to be the apple from the Garden of Eden. Or the cornerstone to Solomon’s Temple. Myself I think these fairy tales to hide its true meaning.’
‘The stone has mystical powers, but men disagree on which,’ said Sebastian. ‘Some say it can grant eternal life. Others claim it can turn lead into gold or dissolve gold. In any case, it’s an exceptionally powerful substance and alchemists are obsessed with discovering it.’
‘Alchemists seek a holy stone which makes magic?’ Charlie couldn’t believe it. The alchemists he knew were eccentric but highly intelligent.
Sebastian shrugged. ‘Alchemists love to speak in riddles,’ he said. ‘Likely they’ve deliberately mixed truth with fact to disguise their true goals. Allegory, especially, they are fond of.’
‘Where a story symbolises a real thing,’ said Sebastian. ‘The green lion who ate the sun is popular currently.’
At Charlie’s blank expression he quantified.
‘I forget you’re not a coffee-house man,’ he said. ‘The green lion is a substance which can dissolve gold,’ he explained. ‘A green liquid. You see? The green lion eats the gold sun?’
‘I didn’t think anything could dissolve gold,’ said Charlie.
‘They haven’t discovered it yet,’ said Sebastian. ‘When alchemists dissolve gold into matter, they can then discover how to make it from base materials.’
Charlie was thinking. Marriage. Gold. He was sure there was something there.
‘Why not ask your brother Rowan?’ suggested Sebastian. ‘I should have thought he’d have a great interest in alchemy. Discovering riches from worthless things,’ he waved his hand airily.
‘Rowan disappeared last summer,’ said Charlie. ‘When plague was high.’
Charlie tried not to think about Rowan too deeply. He’d last seen his brother selling quack plague cures in Moor Fields. Then Rowan had mysteriously vanished.
In his more honest moments, Charlie conceded the likelihood that his brother lay in an unmarked plague grave.
‘I see.’ Sebastian paused. ‘I am sorry for it. My own two brothers vanished during the Civil War. It is a strange thing to grieve and hope at once.’ He lifted his eyes to Charlie’s. ‘Even a familiar place can feel strange when people you love are gone from it.’
Charlie looked away. Sebastian rubbed at his thatch of hair and changed the subject.
‘I can’t think of any other alchemists whom you might ask,’ he admitted. ‘Isaac Newton dabbles. King Charles is a believer. He funds a secret alchemy chamber beneath the palace. I supply it occasionally. Through the tunnels underneath the Palace. Along with treatments for the pox.’
Charlie looked thoughtful. Something had just occurred to him.
‘Crutchfriar’s Mansion,’ he said, ‘that’s where they treat the pox with mercury?’
‘Quicksilver for the pox,’ said Sebastian with a sniff of distaste. ‘A bad business. And expensive.’
‘But people don’t say Crutchfriar’s do they?’ said Charlie, thinking aloud.
Sebastian looked at him strangely. ‘The smoke is bothering you,’ he suggested, fanning the air with his skinny fingers. ‘It can muddle the thoughts.’
‘What would you call Crutchfriar’s Mansion?’ asked Charlie.
‘They call it the Palace,’ said Sebastian. ‘A Londoner’s bad joke. Commoners can’t afford mercury treatments. But many courtly men visit the fuming tubs.’
‘The Palace,’ said Charlie. The boy didn’t say the Royal Palace, he remembered. Perhaps he meant the Pox Palace. Where men have their syphilis fumed away.
Charlie nodded to himself. He was suddenly certain this was where Lily planned to go. It made much more sense than a royal appointment. Crutchfriar’s only treated men. But the warren of discreet rooms afforded a number of illicit possibilities.
The only problem was it was now nearly noon and Crutchfriar’s was the other side of London. Quickly Charlie cycled through his mental map of the city. If the fire was now at Gracechurch Street, there was only one route Lily could realistically take to Crutchfriar’s by carriage. With luck he could still catch her. Nodding his thanks to a baffled Sebastian, Charlie set off at a run.
No one could remember a time before the London Stone. But everyone knew, if the stone split, the city would fall.
Charlie stared at the tall Roman column. The usual milieu of ballad singers, beggars and merchants swearing oaths had deserted. But the wide street of Poultry was chaos.
He’d been expecting to see two carriages at most making their ponderous journey through the London traffic of riders, carts and pedestrians. But Charlie had not accounted for the fire. Every citizen within a half-mile radius of Cheapside was deserting with their worldly goods. People had goods piled on their backs, their heads, or in handkerchiefs suspended from sticks. Donkeys, cattle and sheep pulled makeshift sleds laden with goods. Families had loaded clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac on to sheets, bearing them like rafts through the tide of people. And among it all were countless carts, buggies and carriages of various shapes and sizes.
The tips of the flames at Cheapside could be seen colouring in the sky in the middle distance, like some ominous portent of hell. And the ash had been carried on the breeze, thickening the air and whipping further panic into the deserting citizens. It was complete madness.
Charlie assessed the traffic. Eight coaches. He let his eyes scan the jostling, terrified crowd. A fist-fight was taking place in the thick of it, over a bundle of possessions which had split and scattered. Horses snorted, their eyes bulging. Charlie eyed them warily. By the time he fought his way to the first coach, he would lose another. And that was if he managed to avoid flying hooves and riled-up escapees.
Charlie assessed the coaches carefully. There was nothing to give away Lily’s whereabouts. One in eight. Charlie was a gambling man. He didn’t like those odds. If Lily got inside the fumigation house she could vanish into the warren of treatment rooms. And slip out of one of the many exits without a chance of being followed.
Charlie’s attention shifted to the wider scene. A fat ballad singer was sitting by the London Stone, on the side where oaths and announcements were made.
Usually ballad singers howled favourite songs on request for a penny. But today there was no one paying for music. The singer was sat on her haunches, surveying the crowd morosely. Seeing her gave Charlie an idea, but he had no penny to enact it. He would have to improvise.
The singer had stood and was shuffling from foot to foot as Charlie approached, easing the pressure on her knees. She wore a tatty apron over a grubby wool dress which her bulk had shortened to knee-length. Her greying hair was pushed haphazardly inside a round frilled cap.
The singer eyed Charlie hopefully as he approached. She had a hare-lip which grossly plumped half of her mouth, revealing a large portion of surprisingly white upper teeth.
‘You charge a penny a song?’ asked Charlie.
The woman nodded and began straightening her cap ready to begin.
‘How should you like to earn fivepence?’ he asked.
Instantly her expression shifted to suspicion.
‘You know of the Bucket of Blood?’ said Charlie.
‘Aye.’ The woman’s voice was husky from over-use. ‘The bare-knuckle fighting place.’
‘There will be a fight tonight,’ he said. ‘One man has been paid to go down. I could tell you his name in exchange for a song to the crowd.’
The singer considered this. Her calloused finger ran along the top of her apron where he suspected she kept her coins.
‘The fire will not stop the fight,’ said Charlie, pressing the advantage. ‘If the devil himself fanned the flames, it would not reach Covent Garden so soon. Besides,’ he added. ‘You’ll sing no songs today. This information is the best money you can hope to make.’
The woman’s lip bobbed in a strange expression.
‘You’ll swear it on the Stone?’ she suggested.
Charlie nodded and placed his hand on the Roman column. The Latin markings were worn smooth where other Londoners had done the same.
‘I swear I tell you true,’ he said.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘What would you have sung?’
‘No song,’ said Charlie. ‘You must call to the crowd that the King comes.’
The ballad singer twisted her head to look.
‘He is never seen in the city,’ she said excitedly. ‘Which direction does he come from?’
She caught the expression on Charlie’s face and her twisted mouth made a little perturbed dance.
‘I shall be lynched,’ she protested, ‘for telling a mistruth.’
‘You can be long gone before they realise,’ assured Charlie. ‘On your way to Covent Garden to place a bet,’ he added enticingly.
The singer gazed out on to the crowd for a long moment before making her decision.
‘The King is coming?’ she confirmed. ‘How many times?’
‘Wait until I’m at the head of the crowd,’ said Charlie. ‘Then call it three times. Loud.’
The singer patted the London Stone. ‘It will be done,’ she said.
‘John Gracey,’ said Charlie. ‘This evening. The Bucket of Blood. The second round. I swear it.’
The singer nodded her thanks and Charlie slipped away towards the crowd. Behind him he heard the singer bellow the words with more force than he could have thought possible. Almost immediately excited shouts of the King’s approach were taken up through the crowd.
‘The King is coming!’ seemed to echo all around, and immediately heads snapped in the direction of the singer.
Charlie waited patiently as the rumour surged and just as he had hoped, heads began to pop out of the carriages. He counted them off carefully. A young couple. An old lord. Two ladies… And there she was. At the window of a finely decorated carriage, peeking through the curtain. Lily Boswell.