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
To the memory of my father
who knew more than most about overcoming adversity
OSE DOWNIE SAT ON THE COLD COBBLES, CRADLING
a swaddled baby that was not hers.
She leaned her aching back against the wall of the imposing stone house, close to its arched oak door. Under any other circumstance, nothing could have brought her near this building where baleful apprehension hung heavy in the air like the stink of tallow, but the man who lived here, Richard Topcliffe, was her last hope. She had been to the court of law, and the justice merely shook his head dismissively and said that even had he believed her—and that, he said with a scowl, was as unlikely as apple blossom in November—there was nothing he could do for her.
The constable had been no more helpful. “Mistress Downie,” he said, “put the baby in a bag like a kitten and throw it in the Thames. What use is it alive? I promise you, in God’s name, that I will not consider the killing a crime but an act of mercy, and you shall never hear another word of the matter”.
Now, outside Topcliffe’s house in the snow-flecked street, close by St. Margaret’s churchyard in Westminster, Rose sat and waited. She had knocked at the door once already, and it had been answered by a sturdy youth with a thin beard who looked her up and down with distaste and told her to go away. She refused and he closed the door in her face. The intense cold would have driven anyone else home to sit at the fireside wrapped in blankets, but Rose would not go until she had seen Topcliffe and begged him to help.
The bitter embers of sunlight dipped behind the edifices of St. Margaret’s and the Abbey, and the cold grew deeper. Rose was fair, young, no more than seventeen with a face that, in other times, sparkled with smiles. She shivered uncontrollably in her heavy gowns and clutched the baby close to share what little warmth she had. Occasionally she lifted a large, well-formed breast from her garments to feed the infant; the milk was free-flowing and rich and her need of relief was almost as insistent as the child’s hunger. Steam rose from her breast in the icy winter air. The child sucked at her with ferocity and she was thankful for it. Monstrous as she considered the baby, some instinct still made her keep it and feed it, even though it was not hers. The day moved on into darkness, but she was as immovable as stone.
OHN SHAKESPEARE STAYED UP LATE INTO THE NIGHT
, and when, finally, he crept into bed he slept fitfully. Like all Englishmen in these terrible days, he was fearful for the safety of his Queen and country. At night these anxieties spilled out in dreams and he awoke bathed in sweat.
Before dawn, he was out of bed breakfasting alone at his long table. He was a tall man, six foot, but not powerfully built. His eyes were hooded and dark and carried the cares of the world in their depths. Only when he smiled, and that was rare enough these past few months, did he appear to shake off the worries that permanently clouded his face.
His maidservant, Jane, was bleary-eyed in her lawn coif and linen nightdress as she lit the fire. He liked to see her like that, unkempt, buxom, and still warm from her bed, her breasts loose and swaying beneath the thin material. He guessed from the way she looked at him that she would receive him with warmth, energy, and generosity should he ever climb the stairs to her attic room and slip under the covers with her. But there would be a reckoning. Such nectar always came at a price, be it the parson’s knock at the door demanding the banns be called or the wail of a babe that no one wanted. And Shakespeare was too cautious a fox to be so snared.
Jane served him three small hens’ eggs boiled hard the way he liked them, good manchet bread and salt butter, some Dutch cheese, common saffron cakes which she had bought from the seller the day before, slices of spiced rump beef, and a beaker of small beer. The room was lit by beeswax candles that guttered in the draft through the leaded window. This winter of early 1587 was cold and Shakespeare ate well to fill his belly and stir life into his limbs.
While Jane cleared away the remnants of the meal, he knelt briefly and said the Lord’s Prayer. As always, he said the words by rote, but today he laid emphasis on
lead us not into temptation
. He was twenty-eight; time to be married. These feelings—urges—were too powerful and needed an outlet other than those to be found in the comfort of a single man’s bed.
At first light, his man, Boltfoot, was waiting for him in the paneled anteroom of the ancient house. He was talking with Jane but she scurried away to the kitchen as soon as Shakespeare entered. Shakespeare frowned; surely there was nothing between them? He shook his head dismissively. No, a young woman like Jane would never see anything in a grizzled former mariner with a clubfoot.
The building that John Shakespeare called home was a handsome four-story wood-frame house which had creaked and moved and bent sideways with the passing of the years. At times Shakespeare wondered whether it might fall about his ears, but it had lasted two centuries thus far and was conveniently close to Mr. Secretary Walsingham’s fine city house in Seething Lane. Though not large, it served as office and home for Shakespeare.
“Is Slide here?”
“Two men, Mr. Shakespeare,” Boltfoot said. “Slide and a constable.”
“I’ll see Slide.”
Boltfoot Cooper was like an old oak, thought Shakespeare, the sinews and raised veins of his face weathered and rutted like bark. He watched his servant as he turned toward the door, his body short and squat, his left foot heavy and dragging, as it had been since birth. He was in his early thirties or so he believed; his mother had died of childbed fever and his father could never recall the year or month of his son’s birth to tell him. Somewhere around 1554 seemed most likely.
“Wait. What does the constable want?”
Boltfoot stopped. “Says there has been a murder.” His voice, brusque and deepened by years of salt air in his time as a ship’s cooper, revealed him to be from Devon.
“Just that? A murder? Why come to me? Why not fetch the justice or the tipstaff?” There was an unmistakeable edge of irritation in Shakespeare’s words. At times these days he felt as if he would seize up like rusted iron, that the pressure of responsibility laid on him by Walsingham was simply too great for one man.
“Says the woman killed looks highborn,” Boltfoot replied. “Soft hands. Says there are papers and strange letters and the house where she was found was burned down. He’s scared.”
Shakespeare sighed in resignation. “Tell him to wait while I see Slide.”
Harry Slide bowed low as he entered the antechamber, sweeping his sable-edged cape aside with extravagance, and then, as he rose, extending his fingers like the neck of a swan.
“All right, Slide. You’re not at court now.”
in the presence of greatness, am I not? The magnificent Mr. John Shakespeare. I have a hundred marks says you will be a minister of the Crown before too long.”
“If you had a hundred marks, Harry, I doubt you would be here.”
Shakespeare eyed Slide’s glittering clothes, his taut collar and stiff doublet with gold and black slashes in the Spanish style. With such expensive tastes, it was hardly surprising he was always impoverished. “So, what can you offer me?”
, as you know, Mr. Shakespeare. Today I heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury was caught in the vestry on Sunday last with his cassock around his waist swiving a member of his flock.”
Shakespeare raised a disapproving eyebrow. Such irreverence could cost a man his life or, at the very least, his ears.
“Nothing very strange about that, you might think,” Slide continued. “But the next day he had her for dinner with carrots and some garden mint.”
Shakespeare couldn’t help laughing out loud.
“At least she was a ewe, not a ram, so I suppose that’s all right. Isn’t it?” Slide said. “I’m afraid I am not sure of the teaching on such matters in the new church.”
Shakespeare laughed again. He was grateful to Slide for lightening his mood. There had been much darkness lately—plots against Her Majesty, a pending death sentence hanging over Mary, Queen of Scots. “You will get yourself hanged if you do not take care, Harry Slide.”
“Perhaps. But for the present, could I interest you in the whereabouts of two priests of the Society of Jesus …”
Shakespeare suddenly paid attention. “Two Jesuits? Garnet and Southwell?”
“Well, yes, of course, that would be a big catch. Do you have them?”
“As good as in the net, Mr. Shakespeare.”
“Tell me more.”
Slide was a slender man with open features beneath fair locks. It was said he could charm eels out of rivers or bees from their hives. Even those he betrayed—and there were many—found it difficult to dislike him. “I want a hundred marks for my information.”
Shakespeare knew the man was dissembling, that he did not as yet know where the notorious Jesuits were hiding, but if anyone could find them it was Slide. He claimed to know what was going on everywhere in the capital and swore he had one or more informers in every prison in London and Southwark. Shakespeare didn’t doubt it. Slide had played a major part in exposing the recently foiled plot to murder Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with the Scots Queen. It was the Scots Queen who now seemed likely to have the shorter life, for she had shown herself to be up to her slender royal neck in the conspiracy against her cousin. Tried and condemned to death, Mary now awaited her fate in the bleak confines of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. All that was needed was a stroke of Elizabeth’s quill on the death warrant.
Mary’s plight was in no small part thanks to Harry Slide, for he had infiltrated the conspirators, and followed their every move on behalf of Walsingham and Shakespeare. The guilty men—Babington, Ballard, and the rest—never stood a chance. Their short lives had ended in torment and butchery at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, hanged by the neck but not allowed to die, their bodies sliced open, entrails drawn from them, beating hearts tossed carelessly into the cauldron, then their carcasses quartered and spread about the capital. Finally, their heads were thrust onto pikes and raised above London Bridge to warn other would-be traitors.
If Slide felt anything for these hapless, tragic men, whom he had come to know so well and whose friendship he had encouraged, he did not show it. He was an expert in the art of projection, feigning sympathy with a cause to draw its adherents to their doom. It might be impossible to trust Slide but, like a sharp kitchen knife that could slip and cut you, he was necessary. And, as far as Shakespeare was concerned, he was good company.
“You will have to tell me more before I can even
of parting with such a sum for a couple of Jesuits.”
“Well, I have sound knowledge that Southwell is living close by the city.”
“I will know within forty-eight hours.”
Slide grinned disarmingly and shrugged his well-padded shoulders. “Garnet is not here, I think. Gone traveling among his flock of traitors in Norfolk, I believe.”
“Well, that halves the price to start with.”
“Mr. Shakespeare, I have expenses …”
Shakespeare took his purse from his belt and removed two coins. “You mean you have tailors, vintners, and whores to keep happy. Gaming debts, too, I don’t doubt. Three marks now and twenty-seven more if you bring me to the Jesuit.”
Slide took the coins and jiggled them jauntily in his hand. You are a hard man, Mr. Shakespeare.
Luckily for you, I’m not as hard as I might be, Harry, or you’d spend half your life in the pillory. But keep alert as always. We need intelligence.
Your will be done, O master.
Slide departed with another sweep of his expensive cape.
The constable could not have been more of a contrast as he bent low beneath the oak lintel of the door. He was big, with longbow-man’s arms that bulged through the woolen smock beneath his oxhide jerkin, and yet he was shaking with something akin to terror. He smelled of fire.
Shakespeare called in Jane, to bring ale to calm his nerves, and then the man blurted out his story of a woman found murdered. Shakespeare listened intently. It was a grim tale and one that Walsingham would expect him to investigate without delay.
The three of them—Shakespeare, Boltfoot, and the constable-took horse and rode through the busy morning streets up through the Bishop’s Gate, beneath the piked heads of thieves and murderers.
Ten minutes later they arrived at Hog Lane, close to Shoreditch and just north of the theaters where the old Holywell Priory had stood before Great Henry pulled it down. Their horses stood in the cold winter air, steam rising from their flanks and hot breath shooting from their nostrils. In front of them was a burnt-out house. The depressing stench of soot and burnt straw hung around them. Blackened debris lay around the horses’ hooves on the hard, icy earth.
Shakespeare huddled into his black bear cloak, a very welcome gift from the New World presented to him by Walsingham at Christmas last. It was a generous gesture and typical of Walsingham in his dealings with those he loved or for whom he felt responsible. He had taken Shakespeare into his employment nine years earlier, when he was a young lawyer newly arrived in London from the Midlands. Shakespeare’s master at Gray’s Inn, Paul Ballater, was a friend of Walsingham and had recommended his pupil for the post, thinking the younger man more suited for practical work than endless dry books. I see you looking out the window when your mind should be on precedent law, John, Ballater had said. Take my advice and go with Walsingham. You will find no better patron in all of England. Shakespeare had seen the truth in this and had not hesitated in accepting the post. He had suffered few pangs of regret, though Walsingham—the world called him Mr. Secretary—was an unbending driver of men.
The constable brought him back to the present. I believe this fire was set deliberate, Mr. Shakespeare, he said. When it caught, at midnight, the house and thatching suddenly went up into flames. I am told it was as if a taper had been put to powder, sir. George Stocker, the bellman, was here very quickly.
Where is he now?
At home not far away, sir, abed. He sleeps by day.
The burnt house stood in a row of a dozen or more frames that had clearly been thrown up quickly in three or four acres of uncultivated land. Shakespeare recognized it as part of the expansion outward from London into what was recently open country to the north of the wall, past Spital Fields toward Ellyngton Ponds. The encroachment was everywhere. The ruined house had not been well built. It looked hastily erected by the landowner, and Shakespeare guessed its purpose was to house incomers from the shire counties; there was good money to be made providing lodging for skilled men who had any sort of work. The city was growing fast with men moving from all parts of the country and from over the water, either seeking wealth or escaping persecution in France or the never-ending war in the Spanish Netherlands. London could no longer contain all those who would live there.
Under the eaves of the stabling near the house, four vagabonds, all of them men and sturdy beggars by the look of them, lay beneath woolen rags on the bitter ground, sleeping off a night of strong ale. They looked like the sort of people no one wanted, the sort who could not get a bed without thieving the where withal, and later, most likely, swinging on the fatal tree at Tyburn for their trouble.