Paul Doherty: The Gallows Murders

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Paul Doherty The Gallows Murders
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    The Gallows Murders
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Paul Doherty

The Gallows Murders


Black-hearted, red-eyed murder! Like the mist which hangs above the marshes of Burpham Manor then spreads its tendrils out around the oak, sycamore and ash which fringe the far side of the lawn, so murder seeps up from my past. It plagues my sleep and jolts the enjoyment of my waking days. I lie in bed at night (between the lovely Phoebe and Margot) and stare up at the ceiling. Always the past! It's ever around me!

Two weeks ago, just before midsummer, the great Elizabeth came to Burpham as my guest. She sat and giggled in my private chamber. In that room there are no gaps between wainscoting and wall. No peepholes, no squints for any spy or eavesdropper like my little chaplain. Yes, that horrid little man, that viper vile, my sweet little tittle-brain is not above listening at keyholes. Oh, the little, noddle-pated fool, that greasy tallow-catch should be more careful of our Queen. Elizabeth once threw her slipper at old Walsingham, her master spy, and scarred him for life. On another occasion she wrote such a fierce letter to the Earl of Essex that he fainted, his body becoming so swollen that all the buttons on his doublet popped off as if cut away by a dagger.

Anyway, on this latest occasion, Elizabeth and I sat in my damask-draped chamber eating comfits and drinking sweet wine. The Queen looked magnificent, even though she's well past her sixty-fifth year. Her nose is a little more hooked, her teeth all black, her hair is false and she still insists on wearing very high-heeled shoes to make her appear more majestic. Not that she needs it. Her face is oblong and fair and those small eyes, dark pools of nothingness, still arouse in me a pleasant smile. We giggled as we talked, remembering this and recalling that. Abruptly Elizabeth put her glass down, the smile fading from her face. Only a small smile! You see her face is covered by so much white paint it cracks if her lips gape too widely.

'Before I leave, Roger,' she'd declared on a previous visit, 'I’ll need your fairest mirror and, for every crack I see in my face-paint, I'll fine you ten pounds sterling. In gold!' she added, rolling her tongue round her carmine-painted lips.

Of course I paid. That's one thing about Elizabeth, never mind about 'fair heart in a woman's breast'. She's as hard as flint when it comes to money! Mind you, a great girl! Lovely lass! My Queen, my lord, my monarch, my mistress, and mother of our dear bastard son. God knows where that rogue is! Last time I heard he was in Spain trying to sell that noddle-pate, the Spanish King, a map of Eldorado, the silver city of the Aztecs.

Ah well, back to the story. On her last visit, Elizabeth looked in the mirror counting the cracks. She stared at me standing behind her.

‘You owe me more this time, Roger!' she -exclaimed. "However, promise to bring me the other mirror and I'll cancel the debt.'

I just shook my head. 'Madam, I do not know what you mean.'

Elizabeth turned, those eyes, black pebbles in her white, snowy face. She seized my wrist and pinched the skin most cruelly. ‘You know what I mean, Roger!' she hissed.

I'd just smile back and shake my head. She may well be my mistress, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the greatest Queen in all the world, but I will not show her that mirror! That's kept in my secret storeroom in a coffer secured by seven locks. A terrible mirror! The one Catherine de Medici used in her Chamber of the Black Arts at Blois. Nostradamus gave it to her. You know, the man who could prophesy the future and see terrible, burning things falling from the sky. Once in Blois, pursued by an insane assassin, I fled to that chamber. I killed the assassin and stole the mirror. I saw the real power of that mirror. I shall not tell you what I glimpsed there. Those sinister secrets which swam out of a black mist, dreadful scenes from the future!

I dashed the candle to the ground and drove the warlock from my manor, screaming that if I saw him again I'd hang him from the highest branch. I never showed Elizabeth that mirror, but somehow she knew I had it. Anyway, I digress… On that day Elizabeth just smiled and turned in her chair. I could tell from her eyes she'd leave the magic mirror to another day.

'If not the future, Roger,' she whispered, 'do you remember the past? What you once told me about the Tower? Well, I have been there again!'

At the time I just looked askance. I did not know what she meant but, when she left and I lay on my great four-poster bed, I suddenly remembered. Now listen, I am well past my ninety-third year. I have lived a life full of mischief. I have met murder in the silken boudoirs of courtesans, the sewers of Rome, the perfume-filled gardens of Istanbul. I have been pursued through icy forests and fought for my life in the ruins of burning cities; but I never forgot the Tower! That narrow, bloody palace of secrets with its stone-walled chambers, secret passageways and hidden rooms! The execution ground of the Great Beast, the mouldwarp, that imp of Satan, His most diabolical Majesty, King Henry VIII of England! Oh yes, I remember the Tower and how, so many years ago, in the summer of 1523, I and my master Benjamin Daunbey, gentle, dark-haired, serene-faced Benjamin, nephew to the great Cardinal Wolsey, probed its secrets. Oh, that dreadful hot summer when the sweating sickness raged in London and the most cunning of murderers was on the loose! Now I sit here, at the centre of my maze, squeezing the tits of Margot and Phoebe, sipping the finest claret as I prepare to dictate my memoirs. My chaplain is impatient to begin. He always hates these diversions. Oh yes he does, the little tickle-bum! I also know he is sitting there trying to pluck up enough courage to ask me permission to name his marriage day. Oh, I have met his betrothed: face like an angel she has. Eyes as round as saucers, they suit her nature! I wager she has been in more laps than a napkin. Or, to misquote the good book, 'She has been tried and found wanton'. No, no, I tease him. I have seen him walking her through the trees.

‘Why do you do that?' I asked. 'Is she a flower which grows wild in the woods?'

'You can never tell about a woman,' my chaplain quips back. 'In her case,' I retort, 'it's charitable not to.'

Oh, I tease. I am sure she's a delightful maid and I have fixed the marriage date for Michaelmas. See how excited he grows! His little bottom twitching! His shoulders shaking! The little bugger had better not be laughing at me. He stares innocently over his shoulder but I know him for what he is. Any man who has two chins must have two faces! No, no, I am cruel to my little chaplain. If he left me, I'd miss him, particularly his sermons on Sunday.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don't belong to the Reformed Faith. I am still a Catholic and hear Mass secretly in my private chamber. There I hide the statue that I rescued from Walsingham, carved in ancient wood, the Mother of God holding her child. I make sure candles burn constantly before it. Anyway, as the law says, I have to attend Sunday morning service in the manor church, so I trot along. I sit in my pew in front of the pulpit and spend most of my time smiling at any pretty face. I'm always armed with a catapult and try to take care of the rats which, every so often, try to scurry across the sanctuary floor. You see, the little bastards live in the church, feasting on the candlewax. Now my theory is that usually they hide, but my chaplain is such a windbag and his sermons so long that the rats give up all hope that he’ll ever shut up, and so take their chances out in the open against my catapult. As soon as one pops out, a small black pebble goes whirling through the air. The congregation love it. My chaplain never notices.

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