Authors: John Pilkington
Table of Contents
THE RUFFLER'S CHILD
A RUINOUS WIND
THE RAMAGE HAWK
THE MAIDEN BELL
THE MAPMAKER'S DAUGHTER
THE JINGLER'S LUCK
THE MUSCOVY CHAIN
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First published in Great Britain 2012 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9-15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
First published in the USA 2013 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS of
110 East 59th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
eBook edition first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited
Copyright Â© 2012 by John Pilkington.
The right of John Pilkington to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Pilkington, John, 1948 June 11-
Marbeck and the double-dealer.
1. Great BritainâHistoryâElizabeth, 1558-1603-
Fiction. 2. Anglo-Spanish War, 1585-1604âFiction. 3. Spy
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-369-3 (epub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8239-4 (cased)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being
described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this
publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons
is purely coincidental.
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Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
arbeck was growing suspicious.
It wasn't merely the fact that he had lost three shillings in as many throws. Nor was it because the caster avoided his eye as he tossed the dice, or even because of the way the man appeared to block the light with his body most of the time. It was the air of suppressed excitement Marbeck detected in him whenever he called a number. This time it was seven.
âSeven, sir â alas! Come, your luck must change soon. How much will you hazard?'
âHow much would you suggest?' Marbeck enquired.
His tone was gentle, though those who knew him might have noticed an edge to it. The caster, however, did not know him. He was a newcomer here â a traveller, he said. He summoned a grin.
âWell now, how can I answer that? You know what remains in your purse, sir, not I.'
âNo?' Marbeck matched the other's smile. âSo you didn't do any rummaging, earlier on? Like asking the landlord who was staying here, what they might be worth, and so forth?'
âNay, sir, you mistake.' A look of annoyance crossed the gamester's face. âI'm a stranger here . . . I enjoy a game, and will play at Main Chance with any man who'll risk a throw.'
There was a lull in the inn's conversation. The Dolphin, its air heavy with tobacco smoke and beer fumes, was noisy as a rule. Being outside the walls by Bishopsgate, the place drew customers from the Liberties, but some were travellers putting up for a night. It suited Marbeck to lodge here. Few asked questions â or, indeed, asked anything of him.
âThe matter is, I've risked several throws now,' he said. âAnd each time I've failed. Yet, whenever you play, you seem to throw a nick and win. What would it take to match your main, I wonder? A new bale of dice, perhaps?'
There was a cough nearby. Marbeck sensed eyes upon him, but kept his on the dice-caster's. A touch of pink appeared on the man's cheeks above his beard. He said: âI dislike your words, sir. Were I of a suspicious nature, I might construe them to mean you name me a cheat.'
âWell, why not construe it?'
Now a silence fell. Outside, a bellman could be heard calling the hour; the doors of Bishopsgate had long since been shut for the night. In the tavern, drinkers regarded the two at the corner table warily. The man with the dice was a heavy-browed fellow, wearing a feathered cap. The other was lean but muscular, neatly dressed in a black doublet. His dark hair and beard were cut short, and he wore neither hat nor ruff. Some recognized him vaguely as a gentleman who had stayed there before. The landlord knew him as a man of unspecified business, who used the name John Sands.
âAnd if I should do so â what then?' the dice-caster asked. He wore a dagger at his belt, but Marbeck had none. In fact he was unarmed, which struck some onlookers as rash if you were going to accuse another man of cheating.
âThen you have but two choices.' Marbeck leaned back from the table. âYou can permit me to examine your dice â to see there's no bristle set in a corner, say, nor a face filed down so that it tips over. I'll weigh them in my hand, in case they're fullams.'
The other man was frowning. âMy other choice?'
He shifted on his stool, then stood up clumsily, and in so doing knocked the table. The dice fell to the floor, whereupon he stooped to retrieve them â but at once Marbeck was on his feet, too. His hand shot out and grasped the other's wrist.
âDon't trouble to make the switch,' he said. âIt's the bale we were playing with I want to see.' He wrenched the fellow's arm up, while with his other hand he forced the man's fingers apart. There was a clatter as the second bale of dice dropped to the floor, but Marbeck didn't look. Instead, he snatched the first pair and thrust the fellow away. The dice-caster fell back â but as he did so he reached for his poniard.
âYou whoreson knaveâ'
That, however, was all he said. With a movement so fast that those watching barely saw it, Marbeck banged the side of his closed fist against the other man's mouth. The fellow reeled and spluttered, still fumbling at his belt, but it was over. In a moment his dagger was taken and thrown aside, and he found himself shoved down on to his stool, from where he stared stupidly up at his assailant.
âNow, that looks interesting.'
Marbeck was holding one of the dice up to a nearby lantern, peering at it. Watched by what was now a small audience, he reached into a pocket and produced, of all things, a tailor's bodkin. Leaning over the table, he proceeded to pierce the die at one corner, working the point in. Then he shook it â and a groan went up from those nearby, as several shiny droplets fell on to the table-top.
âAs I thought â quicksilver.'
He faced the cross-biter, who was glaring at him, blood about his mouth. âStopped dice,' he said. âNice workmanship. Who made them â Jacks, in Billingsgate?'
The other made no answer. Someone sniggered, which prompted others. The tension was broken.
âWell â I have another choice for you, master cogger,' Marbeck went on. âEither return the shillings you took off me with your bale of fullams and leave, or I pass you over to the constable of this parish. I hear he dislikes biters â he'll likely serve you with a flogging for the pleasure of it.'
He dropped the die into his left hand and pocketed it, along with his bodkin. There was a pause, but the gamester knew when he had lost. With a savage gesture, he drew coins from his doublet and slammed them down.
âBest take that with you.' Picking up the man's dagger, Marbeck stuck it in the table, whereupon someone appeared at his side.
âI'll decide who stays and who goes, sir, if you please.'
The speaker was the Dolphin's landlord, a bulky man with whom few cared to argue. Marbeck turned to him.
âAs you wish, Master Hibbert.'
Hibbert glowered at the dice-cogger, then jerked his thumb in the direction of the doorway. But the man was already up. He drew his hand across his mouth, looked at the blood, then yanked his blade from the table and lurched away. The landlord watched him go out, before facing Marbeck.
âThis is no thieves' den, Master Sands,' he said.
âI know it.' Only now did Marbeck relax, and the effect was striking: as if a mask had been pulled off. âIndeed, it used to be more of a players' tavern, did it not?' he added. âBefore the ungrateful fellows went south of the river and built themselves a new theatre. To my mind, Shoreditch has never been the same since.'
Hibbert gave a shrug. âI'll send the drawer over,' he said. âTake a cup of sack for your trouble.'
âIt was no trouble.' Marbeck scooped his shillings off the table. âBut it grows late . . . I'll walk up to my chamber. You may send me a mug there.'
âI will,' the landlord said. âIs there aught else you need?' His eyes moved towards a figure across the room, who was looking at Marbeck. She wore a low taffeta gown, the breasts busked up so high they were almost exposed.
âAnother time, perhaps.'
With a nod Marbeck walked to the stairs. His chamber was at the rear of the inn, facing north towards the Spital Field. Once inside he took off his shoes and sat by the window, leaving the door ajar. Outside it was pitch dark, but he lit no candle. Instead, he waited for the drawer to come up, then took the mug of watered sack from him and closed the door. After taking a drink, he threw himself down on the bed and gazed up at the low ceiling.
âWell, Master Secretary,' he murmured, placing his hands behind his head, âhaven't you let me kick my heels long enough?'
As if in answer, there was laughter from downstairs. Marbeck listened for a while, then, feeling a yawn coming on, he closed his eyes . . . and an image rose up: of Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen's Secretary of State, seated behind a desk in his customary black suit and starched ruff. The little hunchback needed cushions to raise him, so as not to appear too short.
âBravado's a poor cloak, Marbeck,' he was saying, wearing a quizzical look that might have conveyed a number of things. Just then it conveyed displeasure.
âIf it were anyone else, I might have told you to quit my service long ago,' Master Secretary had continued. âBut I need you, despite your impetuousness.'
Tense as he was, Marbeck had kept silent. Both men knew the trip to Flanders had been a failure â as they both knew it had been no fault of his. What irritated Cecil was the loss of a good agent, caught only minutes before he was about to leave what had been a safe house in Antwerp. Marbeck was luckier: he had escaped with nothing worse than a powder burn to his arm â that and the sickening feeling that stemmed from leaving a fellow intelligencer in the hands of the Spanish. What had happened to the man since, he preferred not to think upon.
âGifford knew we were in danger there,' he had said finally. âI'd swear to it. He might have warned us â instead, I'll lay odds he was with his whore in Flushing. Now Moore's taken â likely racked, or worse â and I'm lucky to be alive.'