Authors: Paul Doherty
Tags: #Mystery, #England/Great Britain, #14th Century, #Fiction - Historical
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
First published in Great Britain in 1999
by Headline Book Publishing,
A division of Hodder Headline PLC
338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH
eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn Select an imprint
of Severn House Publishers Limited
This ebook produced by Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1448300419 (epub)
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.
To a great fan
(Mrs) Veronica Hindmarsh
Stanley, Co Durham
‘A place of ghosts! Soil soaked in blood! Houses and mansions built on the sweat of labourers! Graveyards full of corpses whose souls cry to God for vengeance! A pit of darkness with ground fertile enough to grow a thousand Judas trees!’
This is how the preacher who’d swept into London in the autumn of 1380 described the city.
‘The whore of Babylon!’ he had thundered from the steps of Cheapside. ‘The place of the Great Dragon! Didn’t its citizens see Satan, and all his fallen seraphs, rising like dark clouds, plumes of smoke from the spiritual battlefield, across the skies of London?’
The preacher’s mouth was full of such choice phrases. Nevertheless, his words had little effect upon the citizens they had even less upon the King’s good fleet, fresh from patrolling the Narrow Seas and berthed at the different quays along the Thames. The sailors had swarmed ashore, filling the taverns and the streets with their raucous sounds and revelry.
The preacher, in disgust, took off his sandals, shaking the dust from them, a sign that his task was finished. He would have nothing more to do with the citizens of this new Babylon.
Now he sat in the Lion Heart tavern across the Thames on the outskirts of Southwark.
The preacher had gone down its narrow mean streets, the alleyways and runnels full of filth from the open sewers. He had seen the brothels and the whorehouses, the ale-shops and the taverns. Before dusk he had even stood in front of the pillory and watched a man, his ears pinned to the wood, have to pull those ears away leaving them torn and bloody: a sure sign that the King’s justice had been done while the brand he’d carry all the days of his life.
Ah well, life was full of pain! The preacher had done his task. He’d leave London and go to the Cinque Ports. Some good ladies in Cheapside had given him silver pieces. The preacher had snatched them up only to spit in their faces.
‘Women of London! Will ye not repent!’
He had pointed at their painted faces, plucked eyebrows, ornate headdresses covered in wisps of lawn. He mocked their damask-covered gowns with their narrow waists and brocaded stomachers, cut low to reveal swelling, creamy flesh and fluted swanlike necks, their beauty greatly enhanced by silver and gold collars.
The preacher leaned back against the taproom wall and licked his lips. He’d noticed one, youngish, big-bosomed and broad-hipped, with a naughty look in her eyes and a saucy pout to her lips. Would she be lively and enthusiastic in bed? He closed his eyes. He could just picture her, blonde hair falling down. Not like the common whore he had taken in that meadow near the mud flats.
The preacher felt a flush of excitement and opened his eyes. The young whore sitting across the taproom was ever so pert and comely. In fact, she reminded him of a woman he had glimpsed earlier in the day on Cheapside. The preacher, truly a wicked hypocrite, rubbed his stomach. He had eaten and drunk well. He’d done the Lord’s business. Was this the Lord’s way of rewarding him? Had not King David taken comely young maids to his bed to warm his blood and render him more fitted for the Lord’s work? He clawed back his oily black hair and smiled across at the whore, then lifted his tankard. The whore turned away, glancing flirtatiously at him from the corner of her eye. The preacher studied her intently. He would not be brooked. He noticed her smooth face, the rich brown hair, its tresses piled high. She now took off her threadbare cloak, stretching forward. The preacher glimpsed milk-white breasts, the laces of her bodice half undone, and quietly groaned with pleasure. He took a silver coin out, twirling it between his fingers. Was not every saint tempted, he thought? And how could he know the depths of such sin if he did not plumb them himself? He would repent. He would reflect but, for now, his belly was full and the ale made his blood sing like a harp. The whore came over, her high raised pattens slopping on the floor. She moved rather languidly, submissively, head slightly down, hands hanging by her side.
‘You want more ale, sir?’ Her voice was like the purr of a cat, green eyes studying the preacher from head to toe. ‘You are thirsty, tired and in need of comfort?’
‘I am in need of company,’ the preacher replied.
The young whore perched herself demurely on a stool on the other side of the table. She leaned forward, head tilted, eyes half-closed, affording the preacher a generous view of her bosom and neck. He’s a sailor, she thought, come across the Thames looking for fresh meat. And that silver piece in his hand? He’d be a generous customer, even though he looked rather wild and haggard.
‘I’m thirsty,’ she announced.
The preacher raised his hands as he had seen the young bucks do in the taverns. Mine host, standing near the barrels and tuns, smiled and called for a potboy.
‘It looks as if Prudence is going to be busy tonight,’ he whispered.
The potboy hurried across with two slopping blackjacks of ale.
‘What’s your name?’ The preacher toasted her.
‘Are you a whore, Prudence?’
‘I bear no mark or brand on me,’ she quipped. ‘I have not been whipped in the pillory.’
‘But would you like to be whipped, Prudence?’
‘A little,’ she simpered back, though her hand fell to the small knife in her girdle.
Prudence was from the countryside but she knew the darkness in men’s hearts and souls. She intended to rise, make her fortune in this city of gold; become the mistress of some merchant. She had seen old whores and drabs with their pitted faces, toothless, drooling mouths, scars and cuts covering their bodies. Prudence knew all the tricks, this man had better not mark her! He certainly liked his ale and, when their bellies were full, men were easier to handle. She emptied her blackjack quickly. The preacher did likewise and ordered some more. He asked about her life. She told the usual mixture of lies about flawed innocence, flirting with her eyes, promising much. The preacher drank on until he could tolerate the tension no longer. He slammed the tankard down and lurched to his feet. Prudence looked up in alarm.
‘Are you leaving now, sir?’
‘If you wish.’
Prudence took his hand and led him out of the door, ignoring the salacious whispers and muted laughter of the other customers. Outside darkness had fallen. The cold night air revived the preacher.
‘Where to now?’ she asked. ‘Do you have a chamber?’
The preacher shook his head. His lust cooled. He did not wish to be caught in some tavern stable and carted back into the city for punishment.
‘Let’s go somewhere,’ he declared thickly.
Prudence pointed down the street to the mouth of the alleyway.
‘In the fields beyond, stands an old, ruined house.’
‘What house?’ the preacher slurred.
‘Simon the miser’s. Burned down it was, killed the old miser. They say it’s haunted but,’ Prudence peered up at him, ‘it’s not. I’ve been there.’
The preacher grasped her hand more tightly. ‘Come on girl!’
Such a place suited him. It was beyond the city in a place where no sheriff’s men, bailiffs or constables would patrol. Slipping and slithering they went down the alleyway; the line of raggle-taggle houses gave way to a stretch of common land. The preacher slipped an arm round Prudence’s waist.
‘It’s black as hell’s pit,’ he hissed. He stopped and fumbled at her breasts. ‘I want to see what I buy.’
‘Oh, you shall,’ she whispered coyly and snuggled closer, a wild scheme already forming in her mind. She recalled how the downstairs parlour of the old miser’s house was littered with thick pieces of wood. A sharp blow to the head and she’d empty this gull’s purse and be away. And what could he do? Report her to the bailiffs?
They went down a gritty trackway across a wooden bridge. The preacher’s eyes had now grown accustomed to the gloom. In the moonlight, the dark, stark outline of a ruined house rose over the brow of a hill. He began to regret his purchase but Prudence was climbing ahead of him.
At last they stood outside the ruined building. Once a magnificent, two-storied mansion, the roof had now fallen in, the windows were empty sockets. She led him through the doorway along a cracked stone passageway. The preacher paused.
‘I heard something! A footfall?’
‘Nonsense!’ Prudence whispered back.
She led him into the parlour and across to a corner where she froze and cursed her fuddled wits. The room was warm, smelling of smoke as if a fire had been lit. She let go of the preacher’s hand and turned. A shadowy outline now blocked the doorway. She heard a tinder scrape, as a candle was lit. Prudence and the preacher stood transfixed. In the pool of light they glimpsed a corpse, eyes open, throat cut, lying on the floor with this hideous figure above it. The preacher was the first to recover.
‘What?’ He stumbled across.
The crossbow bolt struck him full in the chest while Prudence could only stare in terror as the dark figure strode across the room towards her.
If London was regarded as a foulsome place, Newgate Prison, built into the old Roman wall, was the very antechamber of hell, a warren of passageways, pits, filthy chambers and damp dungeons.
Alice Brokestreet surveyed the murky, mildewed cell. Every time she moved, the gyves on her wrists and ankles chafed her skin. The tallow candle she had bought was now burning low on the stone ledge in front of her. Alice, who had definitely seen better days, wrinkled her nose at the fetid smells from the rotting straw and contemplated the bowl of gruel, which consisted of nothing more than slops with pieces of greasy meat and hard rye bread floating on the top. She tried to eat but couldn’t, being so full of terrors. She closed her eyes. If she could blot out the shadows? Close her ears to the squealing and scampering of the rats? All would be well.
She was back in that tavern-cum-brothel, the Merry Pig, which stood on the corner of the Ropery near Pulteneys Inn. She was in the taproom and the customer, a fat-bellied clerk, was lurching towards her, screaming abuse. Alice had grasped a firkin-opener and, before she could think, had plunged it two hands on the hilt, deep into the clerk’s fat chest. He’d collapsed, choking on the blood bubbling in his throat. Alice had expected help from other customers. They just stared hard-eyed back so she fled, out of the tavern along the needle-thin alleyway. Behind her the cries of ‘Harrow! Harrow! Harrow!’ were bellowed as the hue and cry was raised. Alice, not a young woman, had run demented, crazed with fear. In her panic, she’d turned, going down a runnel only to find there was no way out. She had slipped in the sewer and, before she could even rise, hands were grasping at her, tearing at her clothes and hair; her face was pummelled, her body kicked and punched. She had been caught red-handed, guilty of murder, and the bailiffs of the ward had committed her to Newgate.