Paul Doherty: The Relic Murders

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Paul Doherty The Relic Murders
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    The Relic Murders
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Paul Doherty

The Relic Murders


Oh, the bloody terrors of the night! Oh, Grim Death's dark shadow! How many times have I, Roger Shallot, Lord of Burpham Manor, risen from between my silken sheets, forsaking the warmth of those marvellous twins, Phoebe and Margot, leaving their luscious, marble-white limbs sprawled out in wine-soaked sleep? Lovely girls! My satin-skinned bedpans! How many times have I trotted across to my chamber, pulled back the drapes and stared out over a garden bathed in the light of a weeping moon? Oh, phantasm! Oh, horrors! Oh, the effect of too much claret! I have seen the demons dance in the moonbeams as motes in a shaft of sunlight! Oh, the night is the Devil's black book when I retreat to my cushioned chair and let my memories tumble out!

In my soul's eye I sink down into the Valley of Death where eye-pecking ravens hover above rain-sodden, evil-smelling huts in which witches, beldames of Satan, sit mumping their knees against fires of pure ice. I travel on. In the midnight of that valley I meet the Lord Satan raking over the bones of long-dead men as a gardener gathers in the rotting leaves of autumn. Oh, believe me, I have seen the horrors and heard the chilling chimes at midnight! Corpses piled high like maggots caught cold in mouldy cheese! Rivers of blood splashing in torrents! Cities wrapped in the flames of hell which roar up to an implacable sky!

It's always the same at night. I awaken as if some sanctus bell in my soul tolls away the hours, the minutes, and stirs me from my sleep. Oh, I fable not! I have seen visions which would curl your hair and turn you into Medusa. They come at night when my pillows become hard and sharp, as if stuffed with thistles. Like Hamlet or Macbeth, (oh, by the way, I had my hand in both those plays) I am forced to sit until Satan sweeps into my chamber.

'Shallot!' he roars. 'A man should roast away, not wither up! Look at you, past your ninetieth year and stuffed by the physicians with oils and herbs like a cook would stuff a pudding!'

The devil casts out his net of silver hooks, and dangles it before my eyes. On each hook hangs a memory of my life. And what a life! In my prime I was of medium stature and comely, with a clean-shaven face and curly, black hair and slight squint in one eye. A laughing face: a bubbling-hearted boy, full of pranks and subtle mischief! Sharp wits, faster legs and the most cowardly of hearts! I have been in all the great fights (well to the back!); in all the great pursuits (firmly in the centre!); and in many valiant retreats (at least ten good horse lengths in front of anyone else!). I have diced with kings, especially fat, blubbering Henry Tudor, that Prince of Darkness! The Mould warp prophesied by Merlin! The Great Beast! The blood-thirsty bastard! Henry the Horrible! Henry the Eighth and, if God is good, Henry the last! Mind you, he wasn't too bad. Well, once he was in his old age and his legs turned purple with ulcers and his mind became loose as a leaf in October. I could control him then. I used to push him, in his specially constructed chair, around the galleries of Whitehall. Sometimes, just for the fun of it, I'd take him to the top of some stairs and threaten to throw him down. Oh, he'd blubber! Oh, he'd plead with a wicked, devilish glare in those piggy eyes of his! So I'd change my mind and take him back to his chamber for comfits and a glass of wine. Afterwards he'd paw at my arm. 'Roger,' he'd hiss, 'Roger, my soul mate.'

He would kiss me on the cheek and, when he'd fallen asleep, I'd wash the spot till the skin bleached. Within the hour, the fat turd would wake, screaming and yelling like a baby.

'Light the candles! Light the candles, Roger!' he'd bawl. 'Look! Look in the corner! Can't you see them? The ghosts have come to plague my soul.'

Corner! You'd need all of St Paul's Cathedral to harbour the ghosts waiting for Henry's soul. Gentle Thomas More, saintly Fisher, the monks of Charterhouse, the hundreds that old Jack of Norfolk hung along the Great North Road when he put down Aske's rebellion. And then my pretty ones. Anne Boleyn. Black-eyed Anne! Brave, wanton, as full of courage as a lion! Young Catherine Howard, plump and comely; soft of skin with a will of steel. Catherine of Aragon, dusky-faced, holy of mind and pure of heart. I talk of her soul rather than her physical organ – when they opened her body, her heart had shrivelled to black ash, Henry's doctors had pumped so much arsenic into her blood.

Ah well, enough of Henry. I've also diced with other princes. Francis I rotting away with every known love disease under the sun – when he died the palace stank for weeks even though they scrubbed every ceiling, wall and floor. Catherine de Medici: wicked and wanton, the Queen of the Poison. Charles DC, who never made up his mind whether he was a man or a woman. Selim the sot: drunk on hashish, surrounded by his houris and, in the shadows, the stranglers ready to snuff out your life as easily as you would a candle flame. And what about Philip of Spain in his dark, gold-encrusted chambers of the Escorial? And we mustn't forget that mad bugger in Moscow, must we? Oh, I have seen the times and Satan knows it. But I am not afeared! Not me! Not Sir Roger Shallot, Lord of Burpham Manor, Knight of the Garter, Justice of the Peace. I give Satan as good as I get! I call him a bag pudding, an ice-brained, splay-footed gull. I make the sign of the fig with my little finger. I climb back into my bed and cuddle down between my two lovelies. So, you young men, remember, this: whatever nocturnal terrors come, there's nothing that a prayer, a spark of courage, a cup of wine and a lovely girl can't cure. I can't vouch for the first two but I certainly can for the last!

In the morning, as now, when Phoebus rolls his chariot across the ancient sky… Lord, what a silly phrase! My little chaplain and secretary, that decayed dotard, wants me to use words like that! He sits squirming on his little cushions waiting for me to continue my memoirs. Every so often he interrupts to comment on my diction. Why? Because he's seen too many bloody plays, that's why! He tries to keep out of range of my ash cane – little does he know I have bought a longer one. I have seen his fat shoulders shake with mirth at some of my tales – he's soon recovered from his own tragedy, hasn't he? He was betrothed to a sweet girl, ready to become handfast at the church door. Oh yes, Shakespeare said love is blind and it must be when it comes to him. There, there now, he protests.

'You are always name dropping,' he blurts out maliciously, envious of my friendship with sweet Will.

Well, look who's talking! He's always on about God – indeed, listening to his sermons, you'd think that the good Lord had breakfast with him every day. But back to his beloved. Oh, what a tragedy! Oh,the heartbreak! Oh, I laughed till my sides hurt! You see his beloved lived some miles away: she was the daughter of a prosperous yeoman. My little chaplain asked me to write love letters to her and so I did. I admit, I helped myself to some of Shakespeare's sonnets but who really cares? Will often comes here to see me and, if you can't lend a friend a phrase or two, then what's the use of friendship? Anyway, these love notes were given to a young farmer to deliver at her door. But the strangest thing happened – she never wrote back! So my little chaplain plucks up courage and goes down to see her and – guess what? Oh, the perfidy! – his betrothed had married the farmer who delivered the messages. Mind you, his heart soon healed. When he met two sisters, one tall, the other short, he asked me to which one he should pay court. Keeping my face straight, I told him that he should go for the shorter girl.

'Remember your philosophy,' I declared sonorously. 'When confronted with two evils, always choose the lesser.'

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