London, December 1578. William Constable, a mathematician and astrologer, has devised a new instrument for the navigation of ships. It is to be used in a ‘great adventure’ for a fleet of privateers to attack Spanish treasure ships on their return journey from the ‘New Lands’ to Castile. News of this project has leaked…
Hicks has found a candidate for the manufacture of the instrument. He is a Frenchman by the name of Chap who has a small house and workshop on Long Lane by the Fleet. I have completed my fine drawings and ride with Hicks to meet this man. When I ask Hicks more about him he is somewhat apologetic at describing his trade as a toymaker. He answers my raised eyes by saying that he has a strong reputation for well-crafted wooden and mechanical toys. He is also known to manufacture small items of furniture, such as gaming tables.
Long Lane becomes narrower and more noxious as we near the Fleet. The buildings overhang so that they almost touch and we dismount to have a safer passage. The mud and filth on the lane sucks in our boots and it is an unpleasant last few steps to the door of the Chap house. The building is small, but well-tended compared to its neighbours with a fresh coat of whitewash and tar on the frontage. Our knock is answered by a neat woman of middle years dressed in black, save for white apron and bonnet. I assume this will be Goodwife Chap. We are led through two dark, small, low-beamed rooms where I am forced to bow my head, through to a workshop at the rear. Thankfully, the workshop is more spacious and has good light. Two men are standing at a table peering at a paper laid flat by stones in each corner. Both are dressed in rough woollen shirts with leather aprons. One has almost no head hair and thick beard, while the other is a youth of no more than thirteen years. Hicks makes our introductions.
The older man says, ‘Good day and God’s peace to you gentlemen. I am Chap and this is my son Peter.’ His voice has an unmistakeable French lilt, but his English is good.
I say, ‘Thank you Master Chap. I understand that you are from France. Chap is an unusual name for a Frenchman, is it not?’
‘Yes, sir, our French name is Chappuzeau and it is shortened to make our family trade more acceptable in England.’
‘You are Huguenot?’
‘Yes, we escaped persecution and murder by the Catholic League seven years past. I had another son who did not elude the killing and fire of the mob. To my eternal shame he lies unburied, while his spirit roams the streets of Lyon.’
‘I am sorry for your family distress, Master Chap. You have settled well in England?’
‘We are grateful for safe harbour in this Christian land, sir. I cannot deny that we have suffered through suspicion of our foreign origin, but there has been improvement in trade and our general tolerance over the years.’
‘Good, you know that your trade as a craftsman is the reason for our visit?’
‘Yes, I am intrigued. I was told only that it is for a measuring instrument fashioned from wood and metal.’
I take out my drawings and hand them to Chap. He unrolls the first carefully and places it on top of the existing one, replacing the corner stones. Father and son peer closely at the sketch, then Chap begs his son to fetch paper and quill and to write a series of numbers. He does the same with my second drawing. He takes the paper from his son and, with scratching of head and pursing of lips, writes more before he places quill on the table and folds his arms.
‘It can be done. I see it is for a ship’s master to take readings from the stars.’
‘Yes, it is, Master Chap. It must be well-crafted to allow for precision in measurement.’
‘I will not allow inferior creations to leave my workshop, Doctor Constable.’ It is an effort for him to hold the indignation in his voice. ‘Would it be your pleasure to inspect examples of our work?’
We are led over to a corner where he shows a wooden figure of a man-at-arms made for the young son of a wine merchant. It is ingeniously fitted with small metal joints at neck, elbows, waist and knees; all move smoothly and without minor obstruction. Chap tells me with pride that his son is responsible for the painted decoration. A wooden sword slides from its side and clicks into place in a small holder in the right hand containing sprung metal. Next, he shows me a miniature set of drawers made for a lady’s jewels and other valuables. There is a locking mechanism which serves to remind me of the ebony box at Barn Elms. It is subtle and finely-worked with a smooth key turn and satisfying click. I have seen enough.
‘This is very good work, Master Chap. If you are content that you can manufacture my instrument in quick time, then the commission is yours.’
Hicks nudges me and mutters that we must consider the price before making a commitment.
Chap says, ‘My fee will depend upon the urgency of your need. I have other work here that is promised.’
‘I would have it after four days, on the Monday of next week.’
He shakes his head, reaches for his paper and scrawls more figures and calculations. ‘In that case my fee will be one pound and six shillings.’ Hicks breathes deeply and shuffles his feet. Chap adds, ‘If you can wait for two weeks then my fee will be sixteen shillings and four pence.’
Prudence demands that I leave these negotiations to Hicks, but I need the instrument quickly and I am confident that Chap will make a piece to impress Sir George and Captain Hawkins.
‘I will accept your price for delivery next Monday. Will two crowns be sufficient for a first payment?’ He bows his head in agreement and I hand over the coins. ‘There is a strict condition to this commission, Master Chap. You must not disclose the nature of the object or my name in connection this work to anyone outside this room. The business of sea trade contains many jealousies for obtaining advantage in the speed and accurate navigation of ships.’
A steady drizzle has set in when I reach the Morton house and am pleased to release damp cloak and hat into the arms of a servant for drying by a fire. I am ushered into a receiving room where Darby Wensum stands waiting. He bids me welcome and offers a cup of claret, which I accept. We stand talking of inconsequential things for a few minutes, then he apologises for the absence of Captain General Hawkins who has been detained and will not meet with us this night.
I say, ‘Is Sir George in good health?’
‘Yes, he is well, but has endured an eventful day and dozes before our supper. I trust that he will be with us in short time.’
Our polite conversation is extended for too many minutes and the silence between our exchanges lengthens, creating an uncomfortable air. Finally, Wensum leaves to investigate whether Sir George is ready to join us. He is gone for over a half hour. I begin to feel there is a strangeness about my presence here, when a servant enters and announces that supper is ready to be served.
Wensum is seated next to Sir George who is sat with his chin resting heavily on his chest and is clearly asleep. We are being served oysters and a bowl is set for Sir George who does not stir save for a bubbling of his lips and low whistling as he breathes. We are done with the oysters and started on an eel pie before Wensum begs forgiveness on behalf of Sir George as he fears that his business has been more tiring than he had thought.
He says, ‘Nevertheless, we should discuss your progress with the navigation instrument and I will forward your news to our principals.’
‘Perhaps we should wait for Sir George to wake. I believe his favourite dish is gammon and he may rouse at the odour of this food.’
‘We could wait too long and if he does not stir shortly I should arrange for transport to the comfort of
This is indeed a strange supper, first with the absence of Hawkins and now the deep sleep of Sir George who does not hear our talk, or the rattling of pewter plates and silver serving dishes. It crosses my mind that Rosamund or Helen may have prescribed a sleeping draught.
Wensum says, ‘I am surprised that you have not brought your instrument this night. Does it take so long to fashion an exemplar?’
‘A rough model may be made in a day or two, but exact and dainty work takes more time. I would have a well-crafted piece to present to Sir George and Captain Hawkins.’
‘Do you have an estimate of when it will be ready? You will know that Sir George will be disappointed by an undue delay.’
I mumble an apology and say that I cannot give a date, but will make every effort to submit it for examination as quickly as possible. Wensum bows his head in understanding and puts aside the subject in order to arrange for Sir George’s retirement to his bed chamber. I am in favour of curtailing our supper, but Wensum is determined that we finish the dishes prepared. I pick my way through a pigeon pie, broiled chicken, a gammon and sweet jellies, enduring Wensum’s detailed telling of the preparations for the venture, which I have heard before.
At last, our supper is over and I beg for my outer clothes and horse to return home. Wensum returns to our room with my cloak and hat. He apologises that he has no men available to escort my journey home as they have been called for work at one of Sir George’s store houses on the North Quay.
It is a short ride home and the streets are quiet for the most part, with the cold air keeping souls cozied in their houses or huddled over their cups in the inns. I am passing the dark form of St Gabriel in Fen Church when I spy two figures about one hundred yards ahead run quickly into a side alley. I put a hand on my dagger, pull my cloak back and ‘click’ at Cassius to walk on. I peer closely at the alley as we draw closer, but there is no further movement. There is a shuffling noise to my other side and before I can turn hands grab at my thigh and arm… I am unhorsed… My head… a booming sound as my head hits something solid. Hands… grab my hair, my coat. I kick my feet. I hit something soft. There is a yelp of pain. My arm… twisted… my dagger… I must free my dagger. I smell the sweat and foul breath of a man near my face. He curses and… I am hit… my neck… a clash of steel. My world dissolves and I am lost… falling…falling.
The Year of Our Lord 1579, Devon, England
This cannot be my end. Yet, it seems my time is finished – and in this small place. I should be pricked with fear, wild and alert for a means of escape. Instead, I am curiously resigned with an overwhelming sense of loss and injustice that my passing from this world will be slight and unremarked. And what of Helen? Gone is the promise of our sweet closeness in the marriage bed and cozied comfort in our fading years.
The three men circle warily. Rough and soldierly in appearance, two have daggers and the other a short sword. A fourth stands up the wooded bank holding our horses with my killed companion at his feet. I edge carefully back into the stream. The water is chill and fast-flowing. I must take care not to stumble. Will it be quick, or will I endure agonies from terrible wounds while they have sport with their victim and prolong their moment of victory? I have height on all of them, but they are thickset, dark and grim-faced in their determination. Should I run? To show my back will only encourage them. There is no sanctuary in this quiet, wooded valley; no sign of any help. We are too remote.
I cup my hands and shout, ‘Edward, Henry, to me.’
They stop and two look at the man with sword. He is their leader.
Again, but louder, ‘Edward, Henry. Murder. Thieves. Here.’
Their leader bares his teeth and replies, ‘Ha, there is no one. It is whiffle-whaffle shit - your threat holds naught.’ He is right. There is no Edward or Henry; names I plucked from thin air.
‘You will soon learn of your error. They are near.’ I must stay resolute and firm. To show fear will hasten my end.
‘Come,’ he says, ‘this need not lead to more harm. Your horse, coin and value about your person is all we seek. Throw your boots, cloak and trinkets at our feet and we will leave you to your dabbling and splashing in the water. We would keep our hose dry.’
They are no more than twenty paces from me. If I show doubt, or move in a way that accedes to his words, then I am done, and quickly. I try again, ‘Edward, to me. Now.’
He chuckles deep in his throat and takes a pace forward. The others follow. I grip the handle of my dagger. A low noise escapes my clamped mouth as I prepare for what is to come. I stamp a foot to stop a trembling in my leg. Helen, I am sorry. Fear is in me now, but also indignation. Surely…
The tautness in the air is broken by a cawing of crows and clattering in the trees. Another sound follows – is it a voice, distant and high?
They have stopped.
Someone answers my call. I try to shout, but can only croak. I clear my throat, fill my lungs and roar, ‘Here. Foul murder. The stream.’
They are uncertain. The man with sword is closing. He growls. The others are still. Do my senses play tricks?
Again, there is a distant hailing. Unmistakeable this time, and a little closer. A man’s voice shouts, ‘Ho there,’ and other words I do not recognise. There is no alarm in his calling. He will think we are making merry at our gathering. Once more with as much urgency as I can muster I bellow, ‘Foul murder!’
The leader curses and swipes his sword in a wide arc. He hesitates, jerks his head at the others. They turn and make their way back up the hill towards the horses. He continues to close with me, but I sense that his resolve is weakened.
I point my dagger behind him. ‘You are too late, they are here.’ There is no sign, but I must convince, so take a step forward.
He raises his sword; glances over his shoulder; returns to face me. A cry from one of his men. There is something on the hill; a flash of colour in the trees; a glint of steel. He stretches his sword to me and raises the other hand behind him; makes a half-turn. More cries from the hill. A yell. The image of a horse flickers at the edge of sight - perhaps two mounted horses. The sword man takes a step back; then another. Our eyes meet. He stares, opens his mouth, but nothing comes. Turning slowly, he leaves his sword pointing at my chest. There is action on the hill; a blur of movement. He lurches away, lowers his sword arm and starts up the slope. I am fixed for a long moment, then follow him. I forget I am encumbered by water and too slow. On the bank, I am near him, but trip on a rock and stagger. He sees me falling and readies to strike. I make a despairing lunge. My dagger punches through flesh and strikes something hard. There is a crack. He yells. My dagger is broken. I meet the ground with a thump; taste the earth; smell foul breath as he rolls over me. I am on him, stabbing at his throat with my broken dagger. It will not do; will not cut easily. An eye. I jab the dagger as hard as I can into the eye. Four times; ten; more. I am frantic; must take his life force quickly or I am lost. Suddenly, he is still. I see the blood; hear a gurgling in his throat… and more. It is me. I am grunting, sobbing, panting… pounding my useless weapon into his head… I must… stop.
Have I done this? The head beneath me is a grotesque misshape of cut flesh, white bone and blood; my hands slick with gore. I drop the dagger and move my eyes slowly to the scene amongst the trees on the hill. Two new men stand with swords in hand gazing at me. Where are the other attackers? I push myself up on the shape under me and try to stand. My legs give way and I am back on my knees straddling the body. One of the men sheaths his sword and walks towards me. I watch as he approaches, but do not see clearly; my vision is fixed elsewhere.
‘William, William Constable, is it you?’
I lift my head and see a face I know, framed with flowing yellow hair.
‘William, it is Thomas. I bless the good fortune of this meeting.’
‘Indeed, no more than…’ I close my eyes tight and open again to make certain this is no dream. ‘Thomas Wicken, is it you who has saved me?’
‘What has happened here, William?’
I allow myself a few moments to calm my breathing and gather my thoughts before replying. I rise slowly and move away from the body at my feet. ‘I… I was here with George Duckham. We stopped; Duckham to relieve himself in the trees while I rested by the stream.’ My mind is fuddled and it takes an effort to arrange events, so recent, but which feel far-off and faint. ‘I heard naught, except a rustling in the trees. My senses were spiked and when I looked back, Duckham was fallen and four men had me ready to be killed and robbed at their leisure.’
‘Duckham is dead; his throat slit.’
‘It is as I feared. I pity the poor man. He accompanied me on the orders of Captain Hawkins.’
‘But why – why are you here in this quiet place? I had thought you were safely lodged in Plymouth educating our ships’ masters in the use of your instrument of navigation.’
‘I was. I confess our delays have stretched my patience with confinement in that town and I sought a period of retreat from its noise and commotion. I had promised a friend, Doctor John Foxe, that I would visit the ancient church of St Loda. He holds fond memories of the church, which was founded before the first King William.’
‘It seems that your prayers were well-received. Good fortune is a meagre way to describe the happenstance of hearing your calls.’
‘Forgive me, I have not thanked you properly, Thomas. I owe… my life…’ I embrace him strongly and he pats me on the back with reassuring ‘coos’ and ‘tushes’ as though soothing a babe. I break quickly and must hope that my face does not redden with the discomfort I feel. He is of my age and height, but his bearing and manner make me feel callow and soft. My body is unsteady and I am hesitant in my next words. ‘The church… had a holy air, although my prayers were for… others and not my safekeeping here.’
‘Ha, put yourself at ease, William. I see that you need some time to recover from this cruel disruption to your peace. It is God you should thank for his careful watch over you.’
‘Nevertheless, I am deep in your debt.’ I pause to catch my breath. ‘How… how are you here, Thomas?’
‘I am returning from Dartmouth with my man, Stack, up there. I have been to survey the state of repair of our other ships in that harbour, and to pass a message to Sir Humphrey from Captain General Hawkins.’
‘This would not be your usual path back to Plymouth?’
‘No, we took the Ivybridge road to Dartmouth, but I had a fancy to investigate this lower way through Loddiswell on our return, lest it offer more discretion and speed in our correspondence between the towns.’
‘I am thankful that you did.’
His eyes narrow. ‘Those men up there we have killed; I have seen them in the inns at Plymouth. They will have waited for an opportunity to follow a likely prey into a quiet place such as this. Duckham was a sturdy fellow and handy with his sword, but you should have taken more men to guard your person.’
He mentions killing the attackers as though it was a small, everyday matter. I should be grateful that my rescuer is so proficient at soldiering. His fierce reputation is well-earned. Yet, he is also scholarly and I have come to welcome our discussions on politicking, mathematics of the stars and lighter diversions over the past few weeks. It is an unusual mix of attributes in a man I have come to regard as a friend.
I say, ‘We must take Duckham’s body back.’
‘Yes, and the fuckwits who attacked you we will leave for scavengers to have their little picks. We will report this foul murder to the Justice in Plymouth and Stack will take them to this place in the coming days to recover their remains.’
I bow my head in agreement and start to make my way back up the slope. I feel a hand on my shoulder and stop. Have I forgotten something?
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘You cannot return to Plymouth in your present state. Children will take fright and hide behind their mothers’ skirts. Even grown men will quail at the appearance of a devil on their streets.’ He laughs and claps me on the back. ‘You are covered in blood and soft, black earth, with the appearance of a monster escaped through the gates of hell. You must wash in the stream while we examine the bodies for any trifles and
marks to bring us their names.’
Back at my lodgings in Plymouth town, I have had bowls of water and cloths brought to my chambers so that I can rinse away all remaining traces of the attack from my body. Mistress Gredley stared open-mouthed at my appearance at her door and I was obliged to offer a brief account of the incident. She will hear soon enough, in any event. Her concern for my person soon transformed into much ‘tutting’ and head shaking over the trouble it will take to wash my soiled dress. She is a good woman, keeps a tidy household and I fear I was abrupt in my ending to our conversation. I will make amends when my disposition returns to its normal state.
My head is full of thoughts of Helen. I wrote her a letter only two days past, but will set myself to another. I must be circumspect and dance around the details of today’s misadventure, but the writing may help to free up a tangle of thoughts about my unexpected reprieve from a sudden and violent end to life on this earth.
Finally, it is finished. Helen may wonder at the frequency of my communications and I hope that she will take this as a mark of my devotion or a filling of idle time as we wait for the sailing of our great adventure to the New Lands.
I trust this latest note finds you and your household in good health.
Tomorrow will be the sixtieth day since our parting and I hold tight to the memory of our last embrace. I took heart from your most recent letter in which you fancied your father was softening his position and may, after all, allow you to accompany him to this town to mark the despatch of our fleet. My motives are selfish. I know the journey from London is long and arduous, but Sir George will ensure your party is well-guarded and will secure whatever small comforts he can for you, if his decision falls in our favour.
There are further delays here due to ship repairs and disputes over ownership of cargoes. The patience of all our number is stretched and Captain Hawkins has had to make examples of ship men and soldiers as drunken brawls become more frequent. I know some of the townspeople will be glad when we sail as our nuisance bears down on their profits. Yet, I am told that the town will quieten as the time for our departure draws near and thoughts of our task ahead settles a calmness on the men.
Today, I visited the church of St Loda. You will remember I promised John I that would call there while I am lodged in the West Country. It is a holy place with a quiet air holding memories of older and simpler times. I confess that my thoughts and prayers were coloured with images of you, rather than John and his kindly, but austere, manner.
I happened upon Thomas Wicken on my return journey. He is a fine man – hard and much admired for his braveness, but with good learning and a gentler side. In these short weeks I have come to consider him as a friend and, together with Varley Tewkes, I find pleasure in our conversations, which help to enliven the days of inactivity.
This next day, I will meet with Captain General Hawkins and other notables when we will learn more of the readiness of our ships and expected date for sailing. I am impatient, not for the adventure itself, but for its ending, so that we may state our vows before God and begin our lives together.
Do not delay in your reply. I am eager for your written words, so that I may dream of our closeness to come.
With fondest love