Authors: Rory Clements
Tags: #Sir, #History, #Fiction, #Great Britain, #1558-1603, #1540?-1596, #Elizabeth, #Francis - Assassination attempts, #English First Novelists, #Historical Fiction, #Francis, #English Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Thriller, #Mystery, #Secret service - England, #Assassination attempts, #Fiction - Espionage, #Drake, #Suspense Fiction, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective - Historical, #England, #Mystery & Detective, #Great Britain - History - Elizabeth, #Secret service, #Suspense
The gun did not look much like a gun. One part was a bare wooden stock, triangular but curved on the shortest of the three sides. The stock had two joiners’ hooks to attach it to the front of the weapon, a dark metal barrel, and the snaphaunce mechanism. Herrick clicked the two pieces together, then examined it closely, turning it this way and that, peering down the muzzle, testing the lock and pan cover, cocking the hammer and letting it fall against the frizzen. The action was smooth. At last he looked up. Where are the balls and powder?
Cogg saw his last chance. I kept them separate, Mr. Herrick. They are at the front in an old cabinet where I keep smaller things.
Remember your eyes. Nor will I stop with the pricking out of your eyes. I will slice off your pizzle and stones and you will go to your death a girl if you make just one little error.
Cogg shuddered, but there was one thing he had to try. Herrick dismantled the gun and replaced it in its sacking. He followed Cogg through to the front room. It had a ware-bench, like a shop, and behind it a tall wooden dresser with cupboard doors at the top and little drawers below. The pain in Cogg’s broken left wrist was almost beyond enduring. As he pulled open one of the cabinet doors with his good hand, the packages were revealed on a shelf: the black powder wrapped in a large purse of leather, the balls in a bag of jute cloth. As he picked up the balls and powder he turned and threw them into Herrick’s face, then launched himself at him in a last desperate effort to survive, as hopeless as a chicken running from the farmwife’s blade.
TARLING DAY STOPPED HALFWAY
down Cow Lane. She knew now that Cogg would take her on as one of his whores, so why did she have to wait another night to hear it? Why couldn’t she do a deal with him today and start work immediately? She needed the money badly, for she wanted clothes and food. She also had debts, for which she would suffer if she did not repay them by the week’s end. She had learned about Cogg from her cousin Alice, who was already whoring at his bawdy house by the Bel Savage.
At first Alice had not been pleased to see Starling; she was less than a year older and they had played together as children, swimming in the stream in the summer and stealing coal from the slack tip when winter froze the land. Perhaps Alice was ashamed of what she had become. But when she realized that Starling intended to enter the same line of work, she warmed to her. I never understood what you saw in that pig Edward, she said when Starling told her about her husband’s viciousness. I’d rather die of the French pox in London town than live as a beaten goodwife with a drunken coal hewer for a husbandman in Strelley. Over drinks in the Bel Savage, she had told Starling where to find Cogg.
This is the way things are with him, Starling, so listen well. He’s as fat as six men stuck together, but never laugh at him or shy away from him. He likes Paris tricks, so use your tongue like this. Alice rolled and curled her tongue to show just what Cogg wanted. His terms are half and half, but you’ll have to pay him for food and lodging, too. It doesn’t sound the best bargain this side of Cheapside, but Cogg always gets us a good price. Keeps us free of the pox, mostly, which is what the men want. You’ll learn how to look at them, see if they’re diseased—and tell them to piss off if they are. Cogg’s got ointments of herbs from the apothecary to keep us free of it. Told me he paid for them with the eyes and tongue of a hanged woman. But remember this: if you do get the pox, you’re out, and then it’s the lowest stews in Southwark or back to Strelley.
Retracing her steps, Starling was about to knock at Cogg’s front door when she heard a noise from inside. Voices. It seemed as if he had another visitor—but this was a man’s voice, not another girl. She turned the door handle and found it was open, the lock sheared away from the wood. Whoever was in there with Cogg had done this; she was sure the lock had been secure when she left. Starling slipped into the front room. She heard footfalls at the top of the steps and quickly hid herself, crouching behind a workbench and boxes.
The man she saw with Cogg was tall, dressed darkly, cleanshaven. She felt a chill of unease and wished she had not entered this house again. As she watched him follow Cogg through to the back room and heard the whump of violence and Cogg’s shrill scream, she trembled in fear.
She knew the smell of violence too well. It stank of the sleeping room at the cottage she once called home. Each night, when her husband returned from the coal mine, his face and hands and clothes black, he would eat whatever food she had scavenged or grown, drink strong ale, then hit her. Every night. Every night of the year, without fail. Some nights he would make her lie flat on the straw, her wrists tied to the rough-hewn bed leg with his leather belt as he beat her with the broken haft of an old hayfork. And then, inevitably, he would occupy her, brutally but briefly, as if only her pain could bring him pleasure. Every daybreak when he went off to be wound down the well into the pit of the earth with his little tallow lamp and coal pick, she would pray for the walls to cave in and bury him. And when that didn’t happen, she stopped believing in God and took the road for London.
Huddled behind the workbench, Starling could hear her heart. Did that mean the man in dark clothes could hear it, too? She saw the two men return to the front room. Cogg’s left arm hung limp at the wrist, broken, blood dripping where the bone protruded through the skin. She felt no pity for him. She felt no pity for any man. The other man was carrying something. It looked like some sort of tool, but she had never seen its like before.
Cogg took something from the cabinet behind the ware-bench and threw it at the other man’s face. It was a pathetic effort, evaded easily, and as Cogg lunged toward the man, the dark-clothed one swiftly sidestepped him and pushed Cogg forward so that he fell to the floor, flat on his face. The stranger sat on him, his legs straddling his huge back, and pulled Cogg’s straggly hair. Then, with a thin, black-handled dagger, he stabbed twice at the fat man’s face, the blade descending each time into the eyes and through to the brain. To the hilt. Cogg didn’t scream, but gurgled and thrashed and grunted with the urgency of an animal that suddenly finds itself prey.
The dark-clothed man stood. He wiped the blood and brain from his blade on a rag and sheathed it before dropping some gold coins into his leather purse. He then picked up the objects that had been thrown at him, slung the unidentified tool over his shoulder, and left as quietly as he had arrived.
Starling waited long minutes behind the workbench. Cogg’s feet were twitching but she knew he was dead. At last she came out from her hiding place and went over to him. He was no use to her now. She spat on him. Then she spat on him again. Somewhere in this house, she realized, there must be a goodly stash of gold. Cogg had been a wealthy man.
HEY FOUND DRAKE PACING A WOOD-PANELED ANTEROOM
at Greenwich Palace like a man demented. Boltfoot had seen him pace like this many times, on the quarterdeck when the wind wouldn’t rise.
Francis Drake, Vice Admiral of Elizabeth’s navy, was a short, thickset man of forty-six. His sharp little beard was still fair and golden but now flecked with gray. His hair was a darker red, graying also, curled and combed back off his broad and deep forehead. His eyes retained the vital blue of his youth. He wore court clothes, a brilliant green velvet cape over a green and silver-wrought doublet, all tailored at great cost by Gaston de Volpere of Candlewick Street, along with an outrageous ruff, as wide as a serving platter. His blue eyes could twinkle with amusement but now they were angry, like the dark blue of the stormy sea that was his home.
He was angry, very angry, and nothing the two people with him in this small official room could do or say could calm him down. His young wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, had tried to soothe him without success and now sat on some cushions with a book of poems, trying to shut out the raging torrent that foamed from her husband. His constant companion, Diego, the slave he freed in the Spanish Indies and who had since circumnavigated the world with him, stood at a window, gazing idly out at a bark drifting slowly downstream toward the estuary. He had seen these rages so many times before, and they had long since ceased to frighten him. Drake glared at the new arrivals—Shakespeare, Stanley, and Boltfoot—and stopped his pacing.
In God’s faith, this is a sorry affair, Stanley. She won’t see me. There was a time when I would be admitted to her presence eight times a day; now, when we need her most, she closets herself with lady’s-maid poltroons like Davison and Burghley. This realm will be a Spanish colony before summer’s end if she continues this way!
Sir Francis, Captain Stanley said, bowing briskly. May I introduce Mr. John Shakespeare, an assistant secretary to Mr. Secretary Walsingham.
The furious cloud momentarily lifted from Drake’s brow. Ah yes, Mr. Shakespeare, I have been expecting you.
It is an honor to meet you, Sir Francis.
Likewise, likewise. A good man, Walsingham. England would be lost without him. I love him like a brother. Now, what exactly is his concern?
Shakespeare viewed the tableau before him with fascination. The great, heroic mariner, in a rage because the Queen refused to see him, his wife so busy in her poems that she scarce looked up at the new arrivals, and a blackamoor dressed like a fine English gentleman and affecting disinterest in the proceedings. What glue held these three disparate creatures together?
Catching the direction of Shakespeare’s eye, Drake broke in before he could speak. Forgive me, Mr. Shakespeare, I have not introduced you to my wife, Elizabeth …
Elizabeth’s delicate, heart-shaped face lit up in a guileless smile that seemed to cast sparkles in the fat sapphires, rubies, and pearls that adorned her neck and fingers. Shakespeare bowed to her and she held out her delicate white hand for a kiss. Drake, meanwhile, was moving swiftly on: … and my very good friend Diego, who probably hates the Spanish even more than I do.
Boltfoot Cooper had been hanging back, behind Shakespeare and Stanley, but now Diego caught sight of him and strode forward to shake his hand. Boltfoot, it is good to see you.
It is good to see you, too, Diego.
I saved Diego from the Spanish in Nombre de Dios, Drake continued, addressing Shakespeare and Stanley and ignoring Boltfoot. I think they had an idea that a hanging would make their saints look favorably on them, and Diego was to be the day’s entertainment. Luckily, he has a strong neck, because he was already dancing the hempen jig when we cut him down. Been my fine companion ever since. He is a master of tongues who has helped me many times talk to my captives when we have boarded ship or taken a town. How many languages do you speak now, Diego?
Four! English, Spanish, Portuguese …
And Mandingo, my own tongue.
Tell me again, Diego, what would you like to do to the Spanish King?
Diego laughed, too, as if he had heard it all before a thousand times. Chain him up, brand him, sling him and two hundred other Spaniards into the stinking hold of a slow carrack across the western sea, set him to work on a Caribbean plantation for ten years. And then I’d hang him.
Drake clapped his hands. And may he burn an eternity in hell, the way he has burned so many others. At last he turned to Boltfoot Cooper. They were both short, squat men and they stood toe to toe, neither man blinking. And you, Cooper, what in God’s name are you doing here? Why aren’t you shaping your staves, bending your hoops, and fashioning your faucets someplace?
He is in my employ, Shakespeare said.
Drake put an arm around Boltfoot’s shoulder. Boltfoot stood sullenly and stiffly as if in the grip of a tropic snake. I know, I know, Drake told Shakespeare. He works for you and Mr. Secretary. You’re a shipwreck of a man, Cooper. You should be building casks, which is what God put you on earth to do, not promenading around London with your caliver and cutlass like some landbound pirate!
And you’re a common thief, Mr. Drake.
Drake took his arm from around Boltfoot’s shoulder and pushed him in the chest. His face had turned to ice. I’ve killed men for less, Cooper.
Boltfoot stood his ground. You were not the only man to journey around the world, Mr. Drake. I was there with you near death from ship’s fever, hunger, and the bloody flux. Where is my share of the treasure?
Why, Mr. Cooper, you have had gold.
Enough to keep me from starving, maybe, Mr. Drake. You feed us a pension in dribs and drabs as it pleases you, and you turn us into beggars for what is rightfully ours. Where are the riches you promised us?
I will hear none of this. Mr. Shakespeare, please remove your man.
Boltfoot was not so easily silenced. Rarely had Shakespeare heard him say more than a dozen words together at a time, and now he was in full flow. Do you not recall that gold Will Legge and I found in the chest of the master’s cabin aboard the
and gave to you? Six and a half pounds that you had not seen. You cut us a wedge twenty-nine ounces and marked it with our names and pledged it to us when we reached England. Where, then, is that gold now, Mr. Drake? Will and I have seen none of it.
Drake was near foaming with anger. God’s faith! You are the vilest knave that ever lived, Boltfoot Cooper. I tell you, you and all the men have had your share and more. Did I not write your names in glory?
Shakespeare decided it was time to intervene. Sir Francis, if I may speak with you a while in private—
I’ll run you through, Cooper, you base scoundrel—
A brief word or two, Sir Francis?
Drake snapped out of his tirade and turned toward Shakespeare. Get me away from the company of this monstrous, dissembling, perfidious, lame bilge-scum of a man. Come, Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Stanley, let us adjourn and take some wine. Diego, you stay with Cooper. He nodded briefly toward his wife. M’lady …
Drake strode ahead of them into the adjoining room, the slight limp he carried from a leg wound sustained in his raid on a Spanish mule train at Nombre de Dios still evident fourteen years later. The three men sat at a table and Drake hammered it with his fist. The Queen will not hear me. She affects to despise me for the lack of pearls, gold, and emeralds brought her from the Spanish Main this last year, but she knows I wreaked terrible harm to the Spanish King. And if she’d give me the commission of ships I need, I would go and sink this king and his enterprise forever.
Sir Francis …
I know, I know, Mr. Shakespeare, you have something to say. But hear me out. I am the one man in England who can save this Queen and this realm from the foul Antichrist of Rome and his Spanish toy dog …
That, Sir Francis, is why I am here. Shakespeare knew as well as any the boastfulness of Drake. It was common knowledge in England and throughout Europe, and those who did not fear him and admire him sneered at him for it.
And yet he had much to be boastful about. Some said the total plunder taken on his three-year round-the-world voyage amounted to five hundred thousand pounds. Much went to the Queen and her treasury, yet Drake himself was left one of the wealthiest men in the realm.
He had won it through courage and cunning and remarkable attention to detail. However distant the sea, he never allowed his ships to fall into disrepair. Despite hunger and illness, he would drive his vessels ashore to be careened—clearing the hulls of barnacles and weed—so that they remained trim and swift and strong.
Never did he shy away from a fight—either with the Spaniards or native peoples. Yet neither did he kill unnecessarily. When he took prisoners, he treated them with courtesy and mercy—a thing rarely true of the Spanish.
Back home, he had for many years been the star in the Queen’s firmament, always welcome in her presence with his vivid tales of a world beyond these shores. Yet now, when England needed him most, he found himself washed up and out of favor. And he could not contain his rage.
He eyed Shakespeare warily.
Tell me then, sir. Why
you here? Some threat to my life, I am told.
A threat that Mr. Secretary takes exceeding serious, Admiral, coming as it does from a ciphered message between Mendoza and the Spanish King.
Drake laughed, a long crashing wave of a laugh. The Spanish King kill me? I will nail his ears to the flummery altar in his Escorial palace before he kills me, Mr. Shakespeare.
We believe Mendoza has found a seasoned mercenary, a paid assassin, to do his work for him. The price on your head, Sir Francis, has increased considerably.
Well, well, and what are the Spaniards offering now? Twenty thousand ducats it was last time, I do believe.
It is now seventy thousand.
Drake clapped his hands, like a river fisherman who has just landed a twenty-pound pike. They will be offering ten times seventy thousand before I am in my grave, Mr. Shakespeare. What say you, Captain Stanley?
I agree entirely, Sir Francis. But perhaps it would be prudent to hear Mr. Shakespeare out. The world knows you are invincible at sea, but now you are ashore, you are not so safe.
Indeed, sir. And do I seem
Is John Doughty at large again with his wooden sword to scare me into my mother’s bed?
This was going to be difficult. Shakespeare understood that it was vital to play to Drake’s vanity. No, Sir Francis, you seem anything but afraid. And that, we believe, is the card Mendoza and his hireling will play. Because you are so very visible at Deptford, at Gravesend, and at court, you are a tempting target—dare I say an
target—for a determined killer. I understand that you do not fear for your life and never have, but we must all fear for the life of Her Majesty and for the future of England. If you should fall to a Spanish ball, bolt, or blade, we will all be lost.
Drake stood up and started pacing again. His face was florid now, a hot red. He was silent a while, then he turned sharply toward Shakespeare and Stanley. So then, what does my friend Mr. Secretary propose?
Shakespeare sighed. He wants me to protect you.
And how would you do that?
Firstly by asking you to curtail your movements. To make yourself less visible, surround yourself at all times with trusted lieutenants. When you board a ship to inspect its caulking and provisioning, spend as little time on deck as possible. When you are at court, avoid the public areas. When you are in the dockyards or chandleries, keep a watchful eye at all times and do not tarry long in one place. Take no chances, Admiral. Your apparel—he nodded toward Drake’s brilliant velvet gown—is very visible.
Drake’s brows knitted in amusement. You don’t think I wear a cloak like this outside court, do you? I’m a mariner, Mr. Shakespeare, I dress in sea clothes. So how else would you protect me if God wills it otherwise?
This was the hard bit. Shakespeare took a deep breath. I would assign Mr. Boltfoot Cooper as your personal guardian, Sir Francis.
Drake exploded with laughter. Cooper! My personal guardian!
He is very handy with his caliver and cutlass, Sir Francis. He knows your ways …
Never. In God’s faith, never.
Shakespeare played his final card. Mr. Secretary Walsingham, your friend, requests this of you. He understands your reluctance and the bad blood, caused I am sure by Mr. Cooper’s avarice, but he begs this one indulgence.
Drake began pacing again. His right hand was gripped on the hilt of his sword, but the weapon stayed firmly in its scabbard. Boltfoot Cooper protect my life? I have sailed tempests and seen strange sea monsters and been at one with God on the empty ocean, but never have I heard such a thing. What say you, Stanley?
He has courage, sir.
Aye, I’ll give you that. Cooper has courage. He was always a fine man in a fight with the Spaniard. Never did he hold back when the powder was burning hot.
I vouch he is indeed a fine man, Sir Francis. I would swear before God that he is loyal, true, and strong.