© Jonathan Posner 2017
All Rights Reserved.
London, November 1574
The waterman shipped his oars and let the little boat drift slowly up to the dark jetty. As the bow bumped against it, he clambered out and secured the line to a small rusty cleat.
He turned to the two sodden men still hunched in the stern of the boat.
“Southwark, sirs,” he muttered. “As bidden.”
At first the two men seemed to be stuck to their seats, as if pressed down by the cold, unrelenting rain that had accompanied them across the Thames from the wharf at Blackfriars. The waterman stared curiously a moment at their shapes silhouetted against the water, as if unsure how he was going to get them out of his boat. Then he gave a barely perceptible sigh and held out his hand to the nearest man. The man looked at it in disgust, but then grabbed hold of it with a gloved hand and used it to step safely onto the glistening planks of the jetty.
While the first man was shaking the rain out of his hat, the waterman held out his hand out to the second.
“I am perfectly capable of disembarking from a wherry!” the second man snapped, and the waterman moved back. With a grunt of annoyance, the man stood up and stepped carefully out of the boat and onto the jetty.
“Wait here,” said the first man. “We’ll be in need of a return to Blackfriars later.”
“Theatre’s closed at this time of night,” observed the waterman, pointing across at the vast slab-sided building that loomed like a black cliff against the dark sky. He gave a barely perceptible snigger. “If that’s why you’re here, of course.”
There was a heavy silence, punctuated only by the gentle rhythmic thump of the boat against the jetty and the patter of rain on the water.
As the silence continued, the waterman began to think that he might have overstepped the mark. A moment later he found himself staggering backwards against a slimy wooden post, propelled by the point of a dagger pushed up into the soft base of his jaw.
“Oh, we are not here for the brothels of Southwark, knave,” came the voice of the second man from the darkness, soft but with unmistakable venom. “If that is what you are suggesting.”
The waterman said nothing, but pressed his head further back onto the wooden post, his eyes fixed on the blade that was just visible as a dull glint against the darkness.
“Nay, knave, we are not here for that.” The blade pressed a little deeper and with a jolt of pain, the waterman felt it break through the skin.
“We are here on private business – and if you have any sense you’ll wait here to carry us back to Blackfriars, then you’ll forget you ever saw us.” The dagger pressed a little deeper and the waterman felt every nerve in his body scream with pain; but he held his tongue. “Do I make myself clear?”
The waterman felt the dagger being pulled back and heard the man step away. Immediately he put his hand to his throat to stem the hot blood that had begun to well out.
“Indeed you do, good sir,” he answered, his voice coming out as an unnatural, guttural croak. “I’ll be here to take you back across the river…” he heard the sound of the dagger being pushed back into its sheath, “…no matter how long that might be.”
“Excellent, good fellow,” said the first man. Stepping past his companion, he pressed a coin into the waterman’s free hand. “Excellent. We will be back.”
The two men stepped off the jetty onto the streets of Southwark and walked in silence a few moments, their leather boots squelching in the mud and filth.
Suddenly the second man stopped. “Why did you give that knave money, Tom?” he asked sharply. “He would have waited for payment on our return. You are too generous.”
The other man stopped also. “Nay, Frances, after you had all but skewered him with your knife, I thought he would be back in his boat and rowing for his life the moment we had stepped away from the jetty. Then we would have been stranded in this hellish mud pit for the night. Besides,” he added, “a single coin to secure our return to civilisation is small price to pay.”
“From your purse, Tom, perhaps.” The man called Frances lifted his boot noisily from a deep pool of mud and carried on walking. “I still warrant that our venture is too important to waste coin on a ruffian such as that.”
“Aye,” answered Tom, following close behind, “and raising a hue and cry for the murder of a wherryman would help our cause better?”
“Don’t give him the dignity of an honest trade, my friend,” snapped Frances. “Did you not take offence as I did, at his suggestion that we were here for the brothels?”
“It was you that said it, not he.”
“Aye, but it was there in his voice, as plain as day. Why else, he was suggesting, do gentlemen steal across to Southwark at dead of night?”
“We gave him no better reason.” Tom was silent a moment as he trudged through the street; the dark, oppressive houses looming overhead against the night sky. “Perhaps we should have let him think we were here for a couple of whores. ‘Tis a better reason than the truth.”
“Nonsense. What if his next passenger was someone who knows us? A knave such as he would be sure to boast of the two fine gentlemen he carried across to the brothels of Southwark.”
“Now you’re talking nonsense.” Tom stopped as his boot suddenly sank deep into a puddle, and foul brown water slopped onto his fine hose. “By the Lord’s Wounds, Frances, curse this God-forsaken place! My boots are ruined! This is my best pair, last worn at Court!”
“Stop your whining,” answered Frances. “You’ll have reason to have a better pair made, if we succeed in our venture.” He marched on through the mud.
“Aye, and no need of a new hat if we fail,” muttered Tom, shaking the muddy water off his boot and trudging after him through the dark.
Tom caught up with his companion at the next street corner. Frances had stopped and was scanning each of two possible alleys that forked off in front of them.
“I don’t recall which of these I was to follow in the instructions I was given,” he muttered.
Tom studied each in turn. “They look much the same to me,” he said.
“That doesn’t help.”
Tom bit back a hot retort – it was not he who had forgotten the instructions. “Let us try the left first,” he said reasonably. “Then if that is not correct we can trace our steps back and try the right.”
Half an hour later they stopped again.
“By the Risen Christ,” snarled Frances, peering around in the dark. “I’ll warrant we have been at this corner at least twice before. We are now completely lost.”
“At least the rain has stopped,” said Tom.
“I was sure we were tracing our step back to the fork in the road.”
Frances gave a dismissive snort. “We will walk that way,” he snapped, pointing along an alley. It was darkened by oppressive timber houses with their ‘jetty’ upper stories leaning in towards eachother, like giants squaring up for a fight. “I think we have been down there before and I am sure I saw the sign for a tavern. We will get some ale and directions.”
“Agreed,” said Tom, and they set off down the muddy street.
It was not long before they came upon a tavern sign swinging squeakily in the night air, bearing the name ‘The Blue Maid’ and a picture of a girl milking a cow. “Good,” said Frances. “We ask in here.”
He pushed open the gate below the sign and they walked down a short dark passageway that opened out into a courtyard, brightly lit by several flaming braziers. A half-open door to one side revealed more light and the sound of voices. Frances pushed it open and they stepped into the tavern.
Inside there were a few wooden tables and benches, each with several men sitting at them nursing tankards of ale. They mostly wore the rough clothes of labourers and peasants, although there were a few better-off yeomen. A couple of peasant girls were travelling round the tables with pitchers of ale, filling tankards as they went, in return for some small coin.
Tom and Frances made their way through the warm fug of candle smoke and hubbub of noise to the only table with two empty seats, and clambered onto the benches next to a couple of elderly labourers. One of the serving girls appeared with two tankards, and filled them from her pitcher. Tom gave her a three-farthing coin, as Frances stared around the room with a look of some distaste.
One of the labourers at their table put down his tankard and stared suspiciously at the two newcomers, then touched his cap in a gesture of servility that seemed to Tom to be only just short of insolence.
“We don’t often see fine gentlemen such as yourselves in the Blue Maid,” he said, his eyebrow raised.
“Filthy night,” answered Tom levelly. “We sought shelter from the downpour.”
“Aye, that’ll be the reason,” replied the labourer, with a small knowing smile on his face.
“Now listen, fellow…” snapped Frances, “mind your ton…” He stopped sharply as Tom kicked him under the table. “Ow! By Christ’s Wounds, Thomas…?”
The labourer laughed. “Your companion is a sensible fellow, sir, as is his boot,” he said to Frances. “He knows well that in here, rank doesn’t count over much.”
Frances said nothing, but his mouth closed like a trap and Tom noticed a red flush start to creep out from under his ruff and spread along his chin.
“You’re right, sir,” said Tom, with a faint smile. “This is not our usual place to drink.” He paused a moment, choosing his words carefully. “But the truth is that while we were indeed seeking shelter, we are in Southwark to find a particular man who lives hereabouts.”
“He must be a special fellow,” observed the other labourer.
“Or he owes you money,” said the first, and gave a great roar of laughter which ended in uncontrolled coughing and gulping of ale.
Tom waited until the paroxysms had died down, then said, “No, we have heard tell of his powers and we sought to meet him.”
“He has powers?” asked the first labourer. “Does he practice sorcery?”
“No, no,” Tom said quickly. “I don’t think his powers come from sorcery. They say he is known as… The Alchemist.”
If he was hoping for an awed reaction, he was disappointed.
“Plenty of folk round here known by that name,” the labourer said matter-of-factly. “Thriving trade by those who’ll tell you they have the secret of turning base metal into gold.”
“They say,” cut in Frances with a tight-lipped smile, “that he can be known by the pictures painted onto his arms.” He placed his own arms on the table. “He has two muskets in the form of a cross, on this arm,” he pointed to his right forearm, “and on the other, a single short-barrelled piece, but which has no lock or other visible sign as to how it could possibly be loaded.”
“Ah, that Alchemist.” The two labourers exchanged a significant look.
“You know this man?” Tom looked at each in turn.
“And you can direct us to where we might find him?”
“Then please be good enough to do so.”
As if by some pre-arranged sign, both labourers picked up their tankards and drained them completely, then thumped them down on the table and looked back expectantly at Tom and Frances.
Tom sighed, then called over a serving girl. “Fill here,” he ordered. She poured ale into each labourer’s tankard as they looked on appreciatively.
“So please be good enough to tell us where we might find this Alchemist,” Tom repeated, as he fished out another coin from his purse and handed it over to the girl.
The labourers picked up their tankards and again exchanged a knowing look.
“He’s not far from this place,” said the first one.
“Mighty close,” said the second.
“You’ll soon find him,” added the first.
They both drained their tankards again, taking their time.
“By thunder!” exploded Frances, rising from the bench with his hand reaching for the dagger at his belt, his face now deep red all over. “Will you tell… ow!” He sat down abruptly as Tom again kicked him hard under the table.
Tom waited until Frances’ face had started to fade back to its more normal colour, then asked quietly. “Where is this Alchemist?”
“That table over there,” said the first labourer with a smile. He pointed across the tavern to where a thin man with no hat and dark spiky hair was sitting, talking to two yeomen.
“Over there?” Frances was incredulous.
“The very man, sir.”
“Christ’s Blood, you could have said…”
“Nay, good fellow,” Tom held up a restraining hand to Frances, “these worthy men of Southwark have had some sport at our expense – we should leave it at that.” He drained his tankard and stood up. “Come, we have business with the Alchemist.” He gave a small nod to the two labourers. “Good evening, sirs.” Without waiting for Frances, he started threading his way across the tavern to the Alchemist’s table.
Frances stood also, then stepped over the bench and hurried off after Tom.
“Go in peace,” said the first labourer to his retreating back, then reached across to Frances’ abandoned tankard and poured its contents into his own. “Go in peace, good sir.”
Tom stopped in front of the Alchemist’s table. The seated men looked up at him, their eyebrows raised in enquiry.
“I’m told you are the one known as the Alchemist,” said Tom.
Frances pushed his way up to the table.
The spiky-haired man looked them both up and down in turn, then gave a barely-perceptible nod.
“I am. Who’s asking?”
Tom said, “One who would talk with you in private.”
The Alchemist stared at them for what seemed an uncomfortably long time, then he glanced at the two yeomen at his table.
The yeomen said nothing, but both stood up and made their way to another table.
Tom and Frances sat down opposite the Alchemist. Tom glanced at the man’s arms, which were sleeveless. There were the pictures as had been described; the strange hand-gun on the left and the crossed muskets on the right.
“What do you want from me?” the Alchemist asked.
Tom took a deep breath, glancing around to ensure that in the hubbub of the tavern, their words would not be overheard.
“It is just possible you can help us,” he said quietly, “in a matter of the greatest importance to the future of England…”