A Roger the Chapman Mystery - Roger the Chapman is far from pleased when the King’s Spymaster General commands him to accompany the manipulative Eloise Gray on a journey to Paris, pretending to be her husband. Roger guesses that the French king is making overtures to the Duke of Burgundy on behalf of the Dauphin – which could wreck the relationship with England’s staunch ally and most important customer for her wool exports . . .
About the Author
Kate Sedley, a student of Anglo-Saxon and medieval history, lives in England. She is married and has a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. "The Saint John's Fern" is the ninth novel in her critically acclaimed series featuring Roger the Chapman.
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The Dance of Death
By Kate Sedley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2009 Kate Sedley
All rights reserved.
I was speechless.
This is not a condition that afflicts me often. My daughter, Elizabeth, will tell you that I am a garrulous old man, and that one of the reasons she encourages me to write these chronicles is to keep me quiet and to prevent me from boring her and my grandchildren with reminiscences. My son and stepson, when they come to visit me with their families, are more charitable and even, on occasion, encourage my recollections. But as Elizabeth points out, I don't live with them.
However, to return to our sheep, as the French say. (Heaven knows why, but there you are!) I was bereft of words. Indignation and shock rendered me dumb. Anger stopped my tongue. I was unable to find words to express my feelings. In short, as I've already remarked, I was speechless.
Not for long, mind you, but long enough to push back my stool with an almighty scraping of wood on stone, rise to my feet with such violence that I almost upset the table at which Timothy Plummer and I were sitting, and stride to the window, flinging open the casement with an equally outraged gesture, meant to indicate the state of my mind as I stared out moodily over the Thames.
It was a beautiful, sunny, mild October afternoon, and the river was even busier than usual with what seemed to be hundreds of small craft plying up and down and across the water like so many restless water-beetles. Among these small boats, the carved and gilded barges of the great and the good, the genuinely important and the self-important glided upriver to Westminster like swans among ducklings, bright with banners, velvet cushions and the vivid liveries – scarlet, deep blue, amber or emerald – of their oarsmen. A forest of masts and tackle bristled along the wharves, while the great cranes swung bales of cargo from ship to shore or shore to ship, depending upon arrival or departure.
Almost immediately below me, I could see the water-stairs of Baynard's Castle, the London home of the Dowager Duchess of York and the present temporary lodging of her younger son, the Duke of Gloucester. I could guess that he was champing at the bit to get home to Yorkshire, to his wife and little son, but King Edward refused to let him go until his brother's recent victory over the Scots, the recapture of the border town of Berwick and its return to English dominion, had been suitably celebrated with pageants and services of thanksgiving. These had occupied most of the past fortnight and were the reason I had remained in London instead of returning immediately to my wife and children in Bristol. I had sent a note to Adela by a friendly carter, warning her to expect me sometime within the next few weeks and assuring her of my safety after my great adventure. It had been my original intention to part company with the army after it reached Nottingham – where, indeed, it began to break up and the southern levies to scatter, the northerners having already left us – but Timothy Plummer had urged me to make the journey to London. Even so, I might have refused and followed my own inclinations, but for a very flattering message from the duke himself, requesting my presence at the victory celebrations.
Now, of course, I knew why.
I turned my head and glared at Timothy Plummer. 'You bastard!' I said softly. 'You cunning little toad! You snake! You ...! You ...!' Imagination failed me. I was too angry to think straight.
The spymaster general smiled placatingly. 'There's no need to upset yourself, Roger. A little trip across the Channel, what could be nicer? A few days – well, let's say a little longer, just to be on the safe side – and then you'll be back again and perfectly free to go home.'
I gritted my teeth. 'I'm going home tomorrow,' I said. 'I've written to Adela to say I'm coming. She and the children are expecting me.' (Not that the latter would be bothered.)
'Er ... I'm afraid not.' Timothy suddenly looked guilty.
'What do you mean, you're afraid not?' I could sense treachery in the air and my guts were beginning to tie themselves in knots.
My companion did his best to look contrite, but only succeeded in looking smug. If I could have laid hands on my cudgel at that moment, I swear I would have rammed it down his throat. Well, I would have tried.
'I–er–I had your letter to Mistress Chapman intercepted. The carter was persuaded to hand it over in exchange for a small gratuity. I'm sorry, Roger, but Adela doesn't even know that you've returned from Scotland yet.'
'She'll know the war's over,' I retorted hotly. 'Bristol gets news just as fast as London, you know. She'll be thinking about me, w–wondering where I am.' The enormity of what he had done choked me and made me stutter. I took a deep breath. 'I've already done one favour for the Crown and come very near to being killed for my pains, and now you're asking me to do another. In case it's slipped your mind, Master Plummer, I'm a pedlar by trade – I repeat, a pedlar! – not one of your spies. My answer is no! I will not go to France!'
Timothy grimaced. 'If I've sunk to being "Master Plummer", then you must be annoyed.'
'Annoyed?' I could barely get the word out. 'Annoyed! I'm furious! Or I would be if I were going.'
The spymaster sighed. 'I'm afraid you've no choice, my friend. This is an order from the king. He was so pleased with your work in Scotland that he wants to make use of your services again.'
'I didn't do anything in Scotland except come close to being murdered. What will happen this time? I'll probably be found floating face down in the Seine.'
I turned back to the window, once more staring down at the water-stairs. A woman now stood there, whether old or young I was unable to tell as, despite the warmth of the day, she was enveloped in a cloak with the hood pulled up. Maybe there was a cold breeze, as there so often was, blowing off the Thames. She made no move to hail any of the passing boats, so I presumed she was waiting for someone, and sure enough, even as I watched, one of the covered boats – price twopence instead of a penny – came across river from the Southwark bank and berthed at the foot of the steps. A young man sprang lightly out, handing over his fare to the oarsman with something of a flourish, as if to prove that money was no object – he could afford to protect himself against the sun as well as the rain – and ran quickly up towards her, smiling and holding out his hand.
He was very nattily dressed in a dark blue tunic, particoloured hose and shoes with pikes of a sufficient length to be caught round his knees with fine gold chains. To complete this outfit, he wore a peaked cap, which sported a long blue feather. Altogether, he fell into that category I have always thought of as 'the smart young gent', very pleased with himself and his appearance, and not caring who knows it. The lady greeted him with a chaste kiss on one cheek, but her back still being towards me, I was unable to see if her glance was approving or no, or whether she admired him as much as he obviously admired himself. Before I could even begin to work out the relationship between them, Timothy's voice had recalled my wandering attention.
'Roger, I'm sorry but you have no choice in this matter. The king has issued his orders. I promise that you'll be in no danger and that it won't be for long.'
I swung round and returned to the table, leaning on my hands and bending over it until my face was within inches of his.
'You're a splendid liar, Timothy,' I snarled. 'I suppose you have to be in your sort of work, but you don't convince me, not one little bit. I know your promises of old. Your mind's as twisted as a coil of rope and I wouldn't trust you beyond that door over there. In fact, not so far. All right!' I straightened up and flung out a hand. 'I can guess what you're going to say: you came to my rescue in Scotland. But it was only by the merest chance that you were in time. And that wasn't supposed to be a dangerous mission, either, was it?' Bile choked me again and I sat down heavily on my stool.
'Look,' Timothy said, taking advantage of my enforced silence, 'you may not believe me, but I'm genuinely sorry about this. If it were up to me, you'd be on your way home tomorrow with the money in your purse that you've been promised. Well, that at least will be paid to you, and you certainly won't lose by this present mission. And what you have to do is quite simple and straightforward.'
I snorted derisively and was about to express my scepticism out loud when a thought struck me. Of course! The whole thing was ludicrous. I once more leaned across the table and gripped my companion's wrist.
'You do realize, don't you, that I can't speak French?' I gave a great shout of laughter. 'I'm not going to be any good to you if I can't speak the language, am I? Have you considered that?'
Timothy looked uncomfortable, but not, as I naturally assumed, because he had overlooked an obvious fact. 'You won't have to speak French,' he said, avoiding my eyes.
'Won't have to speak French?' I repeated. 'Then whatever good am I going to be to you? And, furthermore, with my height, fair hair and blue eyes I'm simply going to shriek, "Englishman" at everyone I meet. Dangerous in itself. You know how our neighbours across the water love us! Like a rat loves poison.'
Timothy cleared his throat and squirmed a bit on his stool. He also looked embarrassed. I wondered what was coming.
'As a matter of fact, none of that will matter. You're travelling as an Englishman and using your own name.'
I stared at him blankly for a moment or two before eventually finding my tongue. 'In God's name, what use is that going to be to you?'
He chewed his thumbnail before answering. 'The truth is, Roger ...' Again he hesitated.
'I should be grateful for the truth,' I snapped.
'The truth is –' Timothy took a deep breath, like a man plunging into a tub of cold water – 'the truth is, you're accompanying someone else who can speak French. A lady. You will pose as her husband, her English husband.'
'What?!' I couldn't believe my ears.
'Your job –' now that the murder was out, Timothy was gaining in confidence – 'is to look after her and see to her needs as if she were indeed your wife.'
Slowly I rose to my feet. 'Oh, no!'
'Oh, yes! Those are the orders, Roger, and there's no gainsaying them. And if you're thinking about Mistress Chapman, there's no reason why she should ever know. She isn't even aware of your present whereabouts. You could still be making your way back from Scotland. You've dropped out of sight and out of time as far as she's concerned. With regard to the lady you're taking to France,' he hurried on, not giving me a chance to speak, 'as her supposed husband, you'll have, of course, to share a bedchamber with her wherever you stop for the night. Possibly the same bed. Well, yes, definitely the same bed if you are both to avoid suspicion. But what happens ... What I mean is ...' His tongue seemed to tie itself in knots and he eventually fell silent, drumming his fingers on the table top.
'Nothing is going to happen,' I answered quietly but firmly, 'because I'm not going. The king can find someone else to play out this little charade.'
Timothy sucked his teeth as if considering the matter, then sadly (the hypocrite!) shook his head. 'No. His Highness has commanded your services and will accept no one else's. I apologize again, old friend, but there is nothing I can do.'
'Stop calling me your "friend"!' I shouted, bringing my fist down with a thump on the table. 'Sweet Virgin!' I straightened my back and took in air like a drowning man reaching the water's surface. 'You're asking me – all right, the king is asking me – to squire a woman to France, posing as her husband, and to share the same bed with her for goodness knows how many nights. If this isn't an invitation to commit adultery, I don't know what is!'
'Not if you're a faithful husband,' the spymaster retorted smugly. 'And I hope, Roger, that you've always been that.'
Which showed how much he knew. I recollected with acute discomfort an amorous episode the previous year with a cosy little armful in Gloucester by the name of Juliette Gerrish. Until then, I had thought myself immune to the physical charms of other women. Now I knew better.
I walked back to the window. The man and woman had disappeared. The landing stage was empty. Typically, the warmth of the autumn afternoon had suddenly vanished and there was a spiteful rumour of winter in the air. Clouds chased one another overhead, broken by only momentary gleams of sunlight, cold as steel.
'So what is she like, this woman I'm to escort to France?' I asked harshly. 'Old? Young? Pretty? Plain? Or downright ugly with a face like a pig's backside? Probably the latter. That would be your idea of a joke.'
'All the better for you if she had.' Timothy grinned. 'It would curb your baser instincts, if they're what you're afraid of.'
'You haven't answered my question.'
There was a pause: then my companion said, with more than a touch of evasiveness, 'You'll find out, all in good time. I'm just relieved that you seem to have accepted the situation.'
'Don't be too sure.' I heaved myself away from the wall against which I had been leaning and faced him once more. 'I've a good mind to try to speak to my lord of Gloucester. He's here, in the castle, and has always shown himself sympathetic to me in the past.'
'Ah! Now!' Timothy smiled benignly. 'It's odd that you should say that, Roger, because I have instructions to take you to see the duke this very evening. His Grace has half an hour to spare before attending yet another banquet of thanksgiving, given by the lord mayor.'
'Oh? And what does he want to see me about?' I demanded belligerently. 'Prince Richard, I mean.'
Again Timothy looked discomfited. 'He wants you to undertake a special mission for him while you're in Paris. Paris, by the way, is your eventual destination. I don't think I've mentioned that.'
'There's a great deal you haven't mentioned,' I retorted wrathfully. 'This is a bit like peeling an onion: there's always another stinking layer underneath.' I returned to the table and sat down yet again, folding my hands on the table top and staring at him across the wine- and food-stained boards. I made a great effort to speak calmly. 'So let's begin at the beginning, shall we, "old friend"? Why am I – and, of course, my fair travelling companion – being sent to France in the first place? Am I allowed to know the reason?'
Timothy breathed an obvious sigh of relief, sensing my capitulation. 'Let's have some wine,' he suggested, and, going to the door, opened it and yelled for a server. 'We might as well be comfortable,' he added, 'and it's still an hour or so until supper. I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink.'
Ten minutes later – the service was prompt in Baynard's Castle – Timothy poured us both a second mazer of a wine that he assured me, aware of my ignorance, was one of the best in the castle cellars. This information did nothing to reassure me. On the contrary, it only increased my uneasiness. If the lackeys had orders to treat us like honoured guests, there was a reason for it. 'Flattery' and 'bribery' were two of the words that immediately sprang to mind; 'softening up' were two more. I liked none of them.
Suddenly realizing how thirsty I was, I had tossed back the first cup of wine with an abandon that had made my companion wince, but he had forced himself to keep pace with me for the sake of good fellowship. Now, however, he urged me to savour the second with more decorum.
'We don't want to get drunk, do we?' he said. 'We need our wits about us.'
'I'd very much like to get drunk,' I snapped. 'Oh, don't worry – I won't. Just get on with what you were going to tell me. Why does the king want me to go to France ...? But wait a minute!' My worst suspicions were suddenly aroused. 'You must have regular spies in Paris. Why aren't you employing one of them to do whatever needs to be done?'
'Ah! Yes!' Timothy recruited his strength with another gulp or two of wine, forgetting in his agitation to give it the respect he claimed it deserved. 'The unhappy fact is ...'
'Go on,' I encouraged him grimly.
'Well, sad to say, we need a ... a fresh face in Paris to ... er ... to replace poor Hubert Pole, who ...'
'Who met with an accident,' Timothy finished in a rush. 'Have some more of this excellent Rhenish.' He refilled my mazer with a generous hand, ignoring his recent injunction to me not to get drunk.
'What sort of accident?' I pushed the cup aside, untouched.
'He ... er ... Well, strangely enough, he was found drowned in the Seine. The poor fellow must have slipped and fallen in.'
'Slipped and fallen in, my left foot!' I exclaimed with unusual restraint, adding caustically, 'Such a quiet river, the Seine, by all accounts. I don't suppose there was anyone around to pull him out ... Now, suppose you tell me the truth.'
'It did happen at night,' Timothy explained hopefully.
'Of course it did. And I expect this Hubert Pole was just enjoying a quiet nocturnal stroll, minding his own business, no threat to anyone.' I sat up straight on my stool, clasping my arms across my chest defiantly. 'You can find someone else, Timothy. I'm not going.'
Excerpted from The Dance of Death by Kate Sedley. Copyright © 2009 Kate Sedley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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