Deryn Lake: Death and the Black Pyramid

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Deryn Lake Death and the Black Pyramid
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    Death and the Black Pyramid
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Deryn Lake

Death and the Black Pyramid


The horses were being backed into the traces, the guard — heavily loaded with blunderbuss and pistols — was clambering up to take his seat beside the coachman, the passengers were all aboard. The stagecoach bound for the West Country stood almost ready to leave, the relatives waving a farewell, two or three of them gathered on the covered balcony of the Gloucester Hotel and Coffee House for a better view and also to keep out of the rain. For, even though it was September, the weather was inclement, the shower being of the fine sort that drove into one’s face and rapidly made one’s clothes damp and unpleasant.

A figure came running through the gloom; a figure holding its hat firmly upon its head as it sped along shouting, ‘Have you any room left?’

The coachman called an answer. ‘Only in the basket, Sir.’

There was an audible groan. ‘Oh dear. I feel I’m getting a little old for that.’

But at that moment the door of the stagecoach swung open and a young man, looking very pale and covered in a clammy cold sweat, got out, reeling slightly. A girl popped her head out of the window.

‘Are you not well, Sir?’

‘No,’ he gasped. ‘I’m afraid I feel very poorly. You must proceed without me.’


The young man made a gesture towards the heavens, said, ‘Excuse me,’ and bolted off into the dismal night.

‘It’s an ill wind,’ called John Rawlings, and cramming his hat on his head, sprinted the last few yards and leapt into the coach before anyone on the roof had had time to descend and take the seat.

The hands of the coachman’s watch were pointing at eight o’clock and it was time to depart. With a loud crack of the whip the stagecoach rumbled out of the yard, past Boone’s the hat maker and Joseph Miller the fish salesman, who also had premises at Billingsgate according to the sign on his shopfront.

‘First stop Brentford, ladies and gents,’ called the guard, and with that they were off on the start of their long journey.

John Rawlings, still gasping from his exertion, settled in his seat, removed his hat, and looked around him at his fellow passengers. Immediately opposite him was sitting a very pretty dark young woman, who inclined her head graciously as John bowed to her. Next to her was a seedy looking individual, somewhat sad of appearance and giving the impression that he had fallen on hard times. But it was to the man in the corner of the coach that the Apothecary’s eyes were drawn and on him that they lingered. For he was one of the finest specimens that John had ever seen.

Jet black and extremely handsome, with elegant, regular features and melting black eyes fringed by voluptuous lashes that would have well become a woman, the man had a finely toned physique. John reckoned that the Negro must have stood well over six feet and boasted a powerful pair of shoulders, at present concealed in a damson velvet coat and a travelling cloak, slate grey in colour.

John glanced to his right and saw a large woman sitting in a huddled posture. She had a fishy, colourless eye which immediately caught the Apothecary’s, causing her to glare at him suspiciously. Beside her and immediately next to John sat a neat little man, all tidy feet and hands, with a white wig placed at a correct angle on his natty head. John at once decided that the man was a dancing master, mainly because of the precision of even his smallest movements.

The woman with the fishy eye suddenly let out a great sigh and speaking in a pronounced German accent said, ‘Ach, I am so worried about mein luggage. Will it get safely to Exeter, I ask? I doubt it. I truly do.’

‘Why, Ma’am?’ enquired the dark young woman opposite.

‘My dear young lady you obviously have not travelled much or you vould know that the vays are littered with rogues and vagabonds. Think of the coaching inns, the posthouses, the horse keepers, the hostlers — to say nuzzink of highvaymen and other robbers. I tell you vun’s baggage is not safe anyvere except under vun’s nose.’

‘But there are no facilities for that in a stagecoach,’ said the dancing master mildly.

The fishy-eyed woman rounded on him. ‘Zat is obvious, Sir. Othervise I vould be guarding mine with mein life.’

John produced a book from inside his cloak and tucked his nose in it, determined not to get drawn into such a pointless and silly discussion. The ploy worked and the conversation flowed round him, the German woman growing tetchier by the second, the young lady playing the innocent and taking the rise out of her, but oh so gently. The dancing master, very sensibly, relapsing into silence.

They had been travelling an hour and quiet had been restored when suddenly the black man spoke into the hush.

‘Does anybody know what time we reach Brentford?’

John looked up, surprised indeed by the man’s voice, which was educated and pleasant to listen to. He glanced at his watch.

‘In another twenty minutes or so.’

‘Excellent, my friend. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jack Beef.’

‘And mine is John Rawlings. Are you travelling all the way to Exeter?’

‘I am indeed. May I present my manager?’ He gestured towards the seedy-looking man. ‘This is Nathaniel Broome.’

John bowed as best he could. ‘Delighted to make your acquaintance, Sir.’

‘Delighted to make yours,’ replied the other, in a high, tight voice.

‘You may be wondering why I travel with a manager,’ Jack continued, laughing gently. ‘The answer is that I am a bare-knuckle fighter and I am going to Exeter to take part in a bout.’

‘How interesting,’ said John, meaning it.

Jack Beef looked melancholy. ‘In fact it is a hard life. I admit that I get to see some interesting places but that is the sum total of it.’

Nathaniel spoke up in his congested tones. ‘Oh come now. What about your fat purses? And the lords of the land whose hands you have shaken?’

The black man gave a broad grin and explained to his fellow travellers.

‘My professional name is the Black Pyramid, apparently because my torso resembles one — inverted I might add,’ he informed the others with a rich laugh that made several people in the compartment smile, other than, it need hardly be said, the German lady who continued to cast her eyes towards the roof and mutter, ‘Ach’.

Then, as quickly as it had started, the conversation died away and they continued to journey in silence until at twenty minutes past nine the coach pulled up in the stableyard of The Three Pigeons in Brentford. John, recalling the terrible Christmas he had spent on the run heading for Exeter, when he had been accused of the murder of his wife, gave an involuntary shiver as he stepped down onto the cobbles.

The dancing master noticed and said, ‘Are you all right, Sir?’

John smiled down at him. ‘Yes, perfectly. It is just the inclement night, don’t you know.’

The little man bowed. ‘Allow me to present myself. My name is Cuthbert Simms. And who might I have the honour of addressing?’

‘John Rawlings. I am an apothecary by trade. And you, Sir?’

‘I teach the art of dance to folk young and old. For many years I was attached to a great household but…’ He sighed. ‘Things change, alas.’

John silently gave himself a good mark for guessing correctly.

‘Indeed they do. Allow me to buy you a drink, Sir. I think we have thirty minutes before we plunge on again.’

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