Southwark, 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 stuck to their seats, as if pressed down by the cold, unrelenting rain that had accompanied them across the Thames from the little wharf at Queenhythe. The waterman stared curiously at their dark shapes silhouetted against the shimmering 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 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 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 onto the jetty.
“Wait here,” said the first man. “We will be in need of a return to Queenhythe later.”
“The bear pit is closed at this time of night,” observed the waterman. He gave a small snigger. “If that is why you are 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. The men stood as still as statues, and the waterman started to wonder if they had even heard him. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Because if it is girls you want…” then suddenly he found himself staggering backwards, propelled by the point of a dagger pushed up into the soft base of his jaw, and ended up pressed hard against a slimy wooden post. “Oh, we are not here for the stews of Southwark, knave,” came the voice of the second man, with soft but unmistakable venom. “If that is what you are suggesting.”
The waterman said nothing, but pressed his head further back on the wooden post, his eyes fixed on the blade that was just visible in the darkness.
“Nay, knave, we are not here for whores.” The blade pressed a little deeper and the waterman winced as he felt it break through the skin. “We are on private business – and if you have any sense you will wait here to carry us back to Queenhythe, then you will most assuredly forget that you ever saw us.”
The dagger pressed a little deeper.
The waterman remained silent, unable to speak.
Then the dagger was pulled back, and the man turned away. Immediately the waterman put his hand to his throat to stem the hot blood that started to ooze out.
“Or belike I will seek you out and let my blade here finish the task. Do I make myself clear?”
“Indeed you do, good sir,” the waterman answered, his voice coming out as an unnatural, guttural croak. “I will be here to take you back across the river.” He rubbed his throat. “No matter how long that might be,” he added with an attempt at a thin smile.”
“Good. Make sure you are.” The man sheathed his dagger then stepped off the jetty and onto the street beyond. “Or I will find you, be assured of that.”
The two companions walked the Southwark streets in silence a few moments, their leather shoes squelching in the mud and filth.
Suddenly the first man stopped. “Why did you threaten that man so, Frances?” he asked sharply.
The other man stopped also. “Nay, Tom, had I not been clear on the consequences, 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, forced to wait for the bridge to open in the morning. Besides,” he added, “a small threat to secure our easier return to civilisation is a fair trade.”
“Aye,” answered Tom, following close behind, “and raising a hue and cry for the murder of a wherryman would help our cause better?”
“Do not give him the dignity of an honest trade, my friend,” snapped Francis. “Did you not take offence, as did I, at his suggestion that we were here for the Southwark stews? 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.”
Tom snorted in disbelief. “Now it is you who is talking nonsense.” He stopped as his foot sank deep into a puddle, and foul brown water slopped up his ankle. “By the Lord’s Wounds, Francis, curse this God-forsaken place! My shoes are ruined! This is my best pair!”
“Stop your whining,” snarled Francis. “I will have reason to have a better pair made for you if we succeed in our venture.” He marched on through the mud. “And a fine pair for myself as well,” he added.
“Aye, but no need of a new hat if it fails,” muttered Tom, shaking the muddy water off his shoe and trudging after him through the dark.
Tom caught up with his companion at the next street corner. Francis had stopped and was scanning each of two possible alleys that forked away in front of them.
“I do not 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 does not help.”
“Let us try the left first,” Tom said reasonably. “Then if that is not correct, we can always re-trace our steps back, and try the right.”
Half an hour later they stopped again.
“By the Risen Christ,” snarled Francis, peering around in the dark. “I warrant we have been at this corner at least twice before. We are now completely lost.”
“At least the rain has stopped,” Tom pointed out, trying to sound reasonable.
“Small comfort,” Francis snapped back.
“I was sure we were tracing our steps back to the fork in the road.”
Francis gave a dismissive snort. “We will walk that way,” he muttered, pointing along an alley. It was darkened by oppressive timber houses with their ‘jetty’ upper stories leaning in towards each other, like giants squaring up for a fight.
It was not long before they came upon a tavern sign swinging in the night air, bearing the name ‘The Blue Maid’ and a picture of a girl milking a cow. “See here,” said Tom, pointing up. “I say we step inside and ask the good men of Southwark if they can help us.”
Without waiting for Francis, he 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. Tom pushed it open and Francis followed him into the tavern.
As they made their way through the warm fug of candle smoke, Tom spotted a table with two empty seats next to a couple of elderly labourers. He sat down.
Francis sat opposite him and looked round in distaste.
The room held around fifteen 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.
One of these girls appeared with two tankards and thumped them down on the table. Tom gave her a three-farthing coin, which she bit carefully then pocketed, seeming satisfied with its authenticity. Then she slopped ale into each tankard and moved away. Francis stared down coldly at some solid object floating in the brown liquid, then picked it out and flicked it away.
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 do not 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 will be the reason,” replied the labourer, with a small knowing smile on his face. “For it is sure not the ale that draws you in.” He looked pointedly at Francis.
“Now listen, fellow…” snapped Francis, “mind your ton…” He stopped sharply as Tom kicked him under the table. “By Christ’s Wounds, Thomas…?”
The labourer laughed. “Your companion is a sensible fellow, sir, as is his foot,” he said.
Francis 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 up his cheek.
“You are right, sir,” said Tom, with a faint, and he hoped, conciliatory 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 do not think his powers come from sorcery. They say he is known as…” he paused, “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 will tell you they have the secret of turning base metal into gold.”
“They say,” cut in Francis 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 one,” 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, his eyebrows raised.
“And you can direct us to where we might find him?”
“Then please be good enough to do so.”
There was a moment’s silence. “He is not far from this place,” said the first labourer.
“Mighty close,” said the second.
“You will soon find him,” added the first.
They both drained their tankards, taking their time.
“By thunder!” exploded Francis, rising from the bench with his hand reaching for the dagger at his belt, his face now deep red all over. “Will you tell…?” He sat down abruptly as Tom again kicked him hard under the table.
Tom waited until Francis’ face had started to fade back to its more usual 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?” Francis sounded incredulous.
“The very man, sir.”
“Christ’s Blood, you could have said…”
“Nay, good fellow,” Tom held up a restraining hand to Francis, “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 Francis, he started threading his way across the tavern to the Alchemist’s table.
Francis stood also, gave a hard-eyed stare at each of the labourers in turn, then stepped over the bench and hurried off after Tom. He joined his companion in front of the Alchemist’s table.
The three seated men looked up at them, their eyebrows raised in enquiry. “I am told you are the one known as the Alchemist,” said Tom, to the spiky-haired man.
The man looked them both up and down in turn, then gave a barely-perceptible nod.
“I am,” he said slowly. “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 Francis sat down in their places, 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…”
© Jonathan Posner 2020
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This extract may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.