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The moment the sun disappears, leaving behind its burning rim, Patience Johnson understands that she is being called.
Around her, people have frozen like statues before an iconoclast's hammer. A shadow has spread. Silence has settled. London streets are not supposed to be so still. No trundle of carts. No chattering. No calling out of cabbages or oysters. No screaming from the milk-sellers. No cooper clanging or butcher thwacking. No hammering from the coppersmiths or pewterers. No laughing. No bells. Even the pigs and the dogs are quiet. The hush is an urban roar of fear and wonder.
They look up, up to where the sun should be. Necks are cricked, mouths hang open. Behind her, someone prays – the familiar words whispered and echoing in the stillness.
Do they know what it means, or is the truth clear to her alone? It is a sign from Him. The knowledge sizzles, but she feels detached from it, as if she is floating up, up towards that spherical halo that shimmers just out of reach. She is being called. The portent unpeels her, laying naked her soul – her unworthy, eternal soul.
Her eyes sting. She remembers her mother telling her she will go blind if she looks full on at the sun. Will she go blind if she looks at a sun-shaped sign, at a message from Him? She is giddy, as if she's spun too fast in the dizzy-spin game she used to play with her sisters in the orchard. She closes her eyes and finds her sisters there, spinning and spinning and falling. Laughing.
Opening her eyes, she sheds the memory as a distraction. Looking up. What should a person do, she wonders, on being given a sign directly from the heavens? Should she curtsy? Pray?
Onions catch and burn as the sausage man lets his charcoal burn too fierce. The bitter, jagged smell fills the street.
A white-capped woman falls to her knees, the mud splashing up her clean skirts. Another falls, and another, until all the street is kneeling. A veteran with one leg tries to kneel, but catches his stick on a cobble and loses his balance. He lands heavily, his jagged stump hitting the ground first, and he gasps with the pain of it.
The first woman to kneel glances sideways at him and flaps her hand in his direction as if shooing a stray cat. Patience moves to help him, but catches sight of his mottled, angry face and decides against it. She kneels instead, taking refuge in the miracle, offering the grizzled old soldier the courtesy of ignoring the awkwardness of how he rearranges his limbs.
Before the sun disappeared, all was normal. They had all been bustling along the street. Patience had slipped out alone. Not far, in this still unfamiliar city. She likes to walk, to watch. But it is so easy to get lost, no matter how you cling to the spire of St Paul's as a waymarker. Once, when she was deeply lost, she could still see it all the time. She kept following streets that veered off in the wrong direction or came to unexpected ends. All the time, she could see the spire pointing decidedly to the sky like a maypole as she meandered round it in frantic, ever-decreasing circles.
This time, she had not wandered far. She loves her nephew, but the constant, whining demands of a four-year-old grate on her twenty-year-old nerves. She needed to escape, to be alone. To hear her own silence, rather than the chattering of her nephew.
She had looked in the shop windows, caught the trailing ends of conversations, pitied the ragged ranks of the beggared. She picked her way with more certainty across the treacherous cobbles – aimless and bored by her aimlessness.
She became aware of a strangeness. A cloud covered the sun; so much was usual. But something was not quite right about the light. It seemed heavy, too pressing. The air was chilled, and as she shivered, the cloud moved on. In its absence, the sun appeared – but a strange, sinister sun. A black shadow was creeping across its face, dragging gasps and sighs from the tiny people below.
An eaten sun. A swallowed sun. Radiance devoured. In the beginning, there was light. There was light. The unremarkable miracle of the sun. And in the end? What?
When did the end begin? Time has no meaning on this darkening street. There is only a terrifying present and the fear that the sun will not reappear. Certainties shift and falter. If the sun can vanish, what else is safe? Who is safe?
Patience, her senses alight in the darkness, can hear the mumbled prayers. She can smell the shifting mud, as the people around her rock on their knees, stirring up the filth and releasing its stench. She puts her hands up to feel the darkness draped over the city. Goosebumps pock her skin; the hairs on her arm, on her neck, bristle. It is cold; a damp, probing coldness.
What does it herald? What glories, what terrors?
How will I become part of the great happenings? she wonders. How will I take my place among the saints? She imagines the alternative – being shunted aside as the world is broken and remade. It is not to be borne.
Her childhood was on the edge of things. She was clothed and shod and fed. She watched the ravages of the war from afar; the blood that spilled in every corner of the land never stained her, or those she loved. Her sister-in-law, Henrietta, was killed on the day the king died. But she didn't count – Patience barely knew her. She is helping to raise Henrietta's motherless son.
The squire's son, they say, was emasculated by a Royalist musket shot. But he was hidden away, and defied the local children's attempts to spy on him through hedges, to shiver in prurient sympathy at his despair.
No – the war ripped apart strangers only. Patience played and danced her way to adulthood, cocooned as the world turned upside down. She paused at sixteen, aghast, when she first visited London and realized that life was happening elsewhere. The heat and burn of living had bypassed little Patience as she picked blackberries in the autumn sun.
It will not happen any more; she will not let it. She will not be left out of the coming battles. Not this time.
'Test me, Lord,' she whispers into the darkness. 'Take me into your service. Let me prove myself.'
A sudden thought. What if this is it? What if this is the Coming itself? Not a sign of glories to come, but glory itself stepping down from heaven in the shadow of a shrouded sun? She looks around frantically, searching for something, anything that might give her a clue. She feels drunk, pickled in wonder and fear. Her heart beats loudly.
At last the shadow begins to recede. Patience risks a glance heavenwards, and sees the curve of the reappearing sun. It is so bright, so reassuringly, blindingly bright, that she wants to shout her praise. She feels light with relief; sun-blessed. It is not the Coming, then. The world is reappearing in the light. It was a sign, and she will have time to make her mark, to take her place in what is to come.
The shadow pulls further back, leaving only the dark spaces that belong at midday – under the oyster-seller's cart, beneath the overhang of the houses that lean across the street to bristle windows at each other, below the unconcerned cat who stretches and curves his back, pushing the livid sores on his exposed skin towards the emerging sun.
She counts herself blessed. To have seen, and to have understood, such a sign! It must mean He has a purpose for her. She cannot be left out as the world is remade. Not this time.
Patience looks around. The street re-emerges from the darkness looking much as it did before the miracle, and yet the change is there. People are looking at one another with penetrating stares. In London, strangers do not look directly at each other's faces, she has learned. The only way to live with so many higgled on top of each other is to pretend that you are alone. The alternative is to be crushed by irritation at other people's slowness, or their speed, or their loudness, or their quietness, or their general, careless impingement on your own existence.
But now these strangers look at each other, mute. They study each other's faces as the shadow recedes, as if looking for clues on how to react. Should they be scared, or hopeful? With the shadow fully gone and the sun shining, the white-capped woman, the one-legged veteran, the pockmarked oyster-seller, the godly matron, the apprentice boy, the soldier and twenty-year-old Patience Johnson look at each other nakedly.
Patience turns away first, dissatisfied. Why look for others to tell you what to think, especially when the sign is so unmistakable? What else can it mean, this demonstration of His power? It is a warning and a promise. He is to come again, she thinks, near skipping down the street back towards her brother Will's house. She knows the way without thinking.
She is unerring in her path. The chosen one. The blessed one. She gabbles silently to her Christ. The Christ who is coming again. 'Let me be your servant in your coming, oh my Lord. Grant me that. Let me do your work. In what is to come, let me matter.'
Will Johnson stands in the street, looking up at the re-emerging sun. Blackberry, his son, clutches at his coat and buries a sticky face into his father's neck.
Will hears the prayers around him increasing in volume. He sighs. What nonsense will be talked as the sun reasserts itself? What endless, frothing streams of piss? He wishes he could find a cave and seal himself up inside until the absurd ranting passes.
He kisses the boy's neck absently, and wonders why his response to this great astronomical vision has been so muted. He imagines himself young, before Henrietta died, and how transported he would have been.
He asks his dead wife a question. Why can't I feel it in my heart, Hen? A total eclipse, for all love, and yet I cannot feel it. Is it your fault for leaving, love?
His son stirs, wrapping into his father. 'It's over, little Blackberry. The sun is back, see.'
'Where the sun go, Dada?'
'It did not go anywhere, my cherub. It was there all the time – just hidden by the moon.'
'I like the moon.'
So did your mother, his father doesn't say. He stands for a while, watching the city fall back into its well-worn grooves. As if nothing has happened.
He wishes the boy were older, so he could explain it all. Explain the elliptical orbits that led the moon to cover the sun, and the glorious, wondrous miracle that is natural philosophy.
'Auntie Imp!' the boy cries out, and Will sees his sister walking towards them. She smiles at Blackberry. She will not tolerate her childhood nickname from anyone but him now. Patience, named more in hope than foresight, earned the nickname Imp early and it has lingered.
Will stumbles on her name, the Imp rolling on his tongue before he forces out: 'Patience. You saw it, I suppose.'
There is something unusually animated about Patience. He has the absurd sense that the sun, in re-emerging, has worked its way beneath her skin to make her glow. She seems almost to hum with energy and light.
'Spectacular, was it not?'
'It was,' she says. Her voice drops to a hush. 'It was a sign.'
He arches an eyebrow, knowing with a sibling's cruelty that this will irritate her. 'It was a natural phenomenon.'
'Call it what you will, brother, but I tell you I felt His breath on me when the sun disappeared.'
'Truly? And did all the hundreds of thousands of people watching with you feel His breath too? Or was His sign for you alone?'
She blushes. He feels his cruelty then, and considers retreat. But really, is it not a kindness to shake this nonsense from her?
'The moon's orbit brought it between us and the sun, Patience. That is all. No signs, no miracles, no revelations.'
She crosses her arms and looks at him, pugnacious and defensive of her newfound revelations. 'And who spins the moon, and spins this world, Will? The rule of the saints is coming, I tell you. Everyone knows it. The rule of the Antichrist is done, and the saints will take their place. Then He will come. It is a sign.'
'So the dead king was the Antichrist?'
'Don't be obtuse, Will. The Pope. The king and Archbishop Laud were merely his agents.'
Will thinks back to the king on the scaffold. He remembers the groan of the crowd as his head fell. Fear of the future hung over all their heads like a giant corporeal question mark. And he remembers the hurried kiss he gave Henrietta as she rushed away to where a twitchy youth would shoot her dead.
The last time he saw her alive. It is more than three years ago. Three years. How is that possible?
Something in his face worries Patience. He hears her voice as if from a distance. 'Will, are you well?'
He forces a smile. 'We shall not agree on this,' he says. 'Let us be friends, for all love.'
She grins back at him, and the tension between them deflates like a bladder ball. He loves that about his little sister – her temper is quick to rise but quicker to ebb. He remembers her as a child, wearing all her emotions on her face and cycling through them in quick succession. She could never bear to see those she loved upset – she took their sorrow on her tiny shoulders and wept with them. She hasn't changed much, he thinks. He puts an arm around her and pulls her in tight.
'Hello, little Berry,' she says to her nephew, their noses touching. 'Imp, Imp,' he squeals.
At the end of the lane, where the cobbles meet the filth of Fleet Street, there is a commotion and the three of them turn to watch. A man is walking, surrounded by people.
He is tall and soberly dressed. His dark hair is cropped close into his nape. He pauses and raises his arms, turning to face his followers so that Patience can see the long line of his nose, his square chin. His dark eyes, which seem to reach further than other eyes, flick momentarily over the heads of his followers to seek hers.
She is open-mouthed, she finds, and brings her lips together quickly.
'We must heed Him,' the man calls in a rich voice, warm like dark broth. 'He is calling us. We must fear Him, we must rejoice in our trembling.'
He looks at her again with a half-smile on his lips and she feels Will's hand tighten on her arm. The man leans in to his followers. With a voice pitched just far enough to reach her, he says: 'He sends a sign, we must listen. For closing our ears means opening our souls to the Antichrist. Where He calls, we must follow.'
Patience whispers an echo: 'We must follow,' and in the febrile atmosphere of the lightening street her soul seems to lift, detach and float.
She hears Will sigh beside her; a puff of despair and irritation. She will not hear him. Why be grounded by his pedantic refusal to see the whole sky? Why crouch when you can soar?
CABO VERDE PENINSULA, AFRICA
Captain Sam Challoner is huddling in a tiny, stinking hut. His eye is pressed to a crack in the wall, and he can feel the scratch of it against his cheek. Outside, a circle of locals jostle and spit invective towards the cowering British. Their skin is filmed with the dust raked up by their feet. One man raises his bow and sights down the arrow towards the hut. Sam pulls back, although it is impossible the man can see him; he is but an eye blinking though a hole.
'Jesus, Captain,' says a voice behind him; a low quaver. 'How will we get out?'
'Have faith,' says Sam.
He turns to look at them. Five of them shrinking into the corner. Three seamen from the Supply, one of the boys – Tom, is it? – and his coxswain, Butcher.
'Faith in the Lord, sir?' asks little Tom, his eyes huge and frightened in a small freckled face.
'And will the Lord rescue us from this fucking hut?' growls Butcher. 'Halfwit.'
The boy bristles, but discipline keeps him mute. Good, thinks Sam. It's harder to keep the men and boys in check ashore – they have notions that the captain's authority needs sea spray to keep it awesome. He is not long in command of the Supply, and he is not convinced by it. A lubberly tub that creeps to leeward. He feels guilty thinking so of his ship, his first command. But worse than the crabwise scuttling in a puff of breeze are the men. The Supply is a captured Commonwealth ship, and though its crew have sworn their oath to King Charles II and their general-at-sea, Prince Rupert, Sam is not sure of their loyalties.
There are a handful of true British parliamentarians, who cast him sullen looks and mutter behind his back. The rest of the crew are local men, dredged from the ports in Supply's long cruise of these waters.
Still, he'll be lucky to see her again. They may dissemble all they like to a new captain. Sam Challoner will be bleached bones in the African sun.
Excerpted from "The Tyrant's Shadow"
Copyright © 2017 Antonia Senior.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
London: April 1652,
Cabo Verde Peninsula, Africa: April 1652,
London: May 1652,
West Indies: June 1652,
Middlesex: July 1652,
Somewhere North of the Virgin Islands: September 1652,
London: Autumn 1652,
Whitehall, London: December 1652,
Whitehall, London: February 1653,
Paris: April 1653,
Whitehall, London: April 1653,
Fetter Lane, London: June 1653,
London: July 1653,
London: August 1653,
Whitehall, London: October 1653,
Whitehall, London: November 1653,
Paris: November 1653,
London: December 1653,
London: December 1653,
London: January 1654,
Cologne, Germany: October 1654,
Hounslow: December 1654,
Whitehall, London: January 1655,
Cornhill, London: April 1655,
London: July 1655,
London: August 1655,
London: September 1655,
Whitehall, London: September 1655,
Epilogue: Cologne: September 1658,
Also by Antonia Senior,