Paul Doherty: A Brood of Vipers

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Paul Doherty A Brood of Vipers
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    A Brood of Vipers
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Paul Doherty


A Brood of Vipers

Prologue

Do marriage and murder go together? I recently reflected on this when my little clerk, God bless his pretty arse, asked my permission to marry. 'Marry in haste and repent at leisure!' I bawled back.

He slunk away, leaving me to my thoughts. Spring has come. I hear the song of the geese as they fly across the marshes in the woods of Burpham Manor. I grasp my stick and, one arm resting on Margot the other on Phoebe (two lovely lasses!), I go and stand out on the steps of my manor house. I stare up at the strengthening sun. My eyes are weak but I hold my face up, searching for its warmth. I recall those sweet, wine-drenched, murderous days under the Tuscan sun where, an eternity ago, I and my master, Benjamin Daunbey, beloved nephew of the great Cardinal Wolsey, searched for a killer. Ah yes, Wolsey, Chancellor and First Minister of the biggest bastard this realm has ever seen, Henry VIII, by God's grace King of England, Scotland, Ireland and France. I turn and walk back into the manor hall. I study the small painting executed by Holbein the Younger, showing the Great Beast' in all his glory – Henry VIII with his fat, florid face, gold moustache and beard and those eyes. Oh Lord, those eyes! Just like a pig's before it charges. And those lips! Wet and slobbery! I remember that pursed mouth pressed up against my ear.

'Shallot!' Henry once hissed. 'You'll wet your breeches at Tyburn! And your clever little neck- will be stretched like a piece of cloth!"

Ah well, he was wrong, wasn't he? Old Shallot survived, proving once again that I do possess the quickest wits and fastest legs in Christendom. Roger Shallot didn't die, although not for any lack of trying by the legion of evil murderers whom I have had the pleasure of doing business with over the years. No, no, Roger Shallot, like the bay tree in the psalms, like the cedar of Lebanon, grew and flourished.

Now it's Sir Roger Shallot, in his mid-nineties, Knight of the Garter, Knight of the Bath, Commissioner of Array, Privy Councillor, Justice of the Peace. The husband of four wives, now all dead, God bless them! (Oh, yes, I've been happily married! My wives were happy and I was married!) Old Roger Shallot, Lord of Burpham Manor, its fields, pastures, woods, streams, carp ponds, orchards, barns and granaries. Confidant, (and, yes, I'll say it) former lover of our Queen, God bless her, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn. (Both marvellous girls, lovely tits!)

You name it and old Roger Shallot has done it. But it's been a long journey! Born in Ipswich at the time of the great plague, I grew, if not straight in the eyes of my contemporaries, then at least I grew-dark-faced, dark-haired, dark-hearted with a slight cast in one eye. No, I am wrong. I do myself an injustice – not dark-hearted, not old Roger! I have loved a great deal. Perhaps I'd loved wrongly, but better that than never loved at all. Of course, I have done dark deeds. I have met murder – on the highway; at the crossroads under a hunter's moon; in the sewers of Venice; in the fetid alleyways of London; on the wind-blasted heaths of Scotland: in the silken courts of Paris and Constantinople: in the rat-infested catacombs of Rome; and in the sun-drenched piazzas of Florence. Ah, there it is, Florence! The golden city on the river Arno with its princes' palaces stuffed with treasures, artefacts and paintings, the like of which the world will never see again. Now it's all gone. The bloody French put paid to that. They sent their soldiers across the Alps to burn and pillage and so black out the sun of human greatness.

Now old Roger is alone. I sit in my secret chamber and dictate my memoirs to my darling chaplain. Lovely little man!

Pinch-bummed, narrow-faced, now he wants to marry! About bloody time! I have seen his lustful glances at Phoebe's buttocks or Margot's generous tits. 'Better marry than burn' says Saint Paul and I suppose I'll have to give him permission. He turns round to argue with me. If he's not careful, I'll rap his little knuckles with my cane and tell him to keep writing.

I stare through the mullioned glass window at the sun. It's still weak, not like in Florence where it burns like a molten disc. I wish summer would come! I wish I could go out and sit in my secret maze with my dogs and my jugs of claret and recount my exploits, tell of my descent into Hell to meet devils with human faces. Ah well! I wish Benjamin were here (God rest him!) – Benjamin with his kind eyes and long, dark face. He had the stooped shoulders of a born scholar and a heart and soul as big as any saint's. We saw the days, Benjamin and I! We travelled all over Europe carrying out tasks for his Satanic Eminence Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and that devil incarnate Henry VIII. Ah excuse me, my clerk interrupts again, he is still blubbering about his marriage. He wants me to pay. The tight little turd! He's so miserly there are cobwebs in his purse. He's the sort of man who would steal a dead fly from a blind spider! Kick him in the heart and you'll break your toes! Yes, yes, my little clerk. He's always around me whenever he needs me. The sort of fellow who would give you the shirt off your back or throw a drowning man both ends of the rope! 'Store up treasure in heaven!' I roar at him.

Mind you, he spends so little he wouldn't even offer me the down payment on a harp. He'll also have to do something about his face before he climbs into the wedding bed – and lose some weight, especially round that moon face. After all, why should he have three chins when everyone else has only got one? Ah, I see his shoulders shaking. I never know whether he's laughing or crying. To be sure, he's not a bad little mannikin, except when he's stealing my claret or trying to inveigle Margot into the hayloft. 'You drink too much claret!' he cries.

The little hypocrite! How dare he lecture me! When it's dark you don't need any candles, his nose is so red it lights up the room! Let me tell you a little joke I played upon him. Quite recently I travelled to London. The old queen wished to take counsel with me in her secret chambers at the Tower. She was worried about our son, our darling boy, who was last seen in the south of Spain trying to have his memoirs published. Anyway, I went, not to lie with her in a carnal sense, but to lie about the past and make her laugh so much her red wig would fall askew and the white paint on her face crack. Now, I didn't take my chaplain. I was tired of his lectures about drink and wine. Anyway, in London, I had my little jest with him. I went to a scrivener outside St Paul's. I pretended to be one of these Puritans, you know the sort -miserable as sin, with a devil-sent mission to make everyone equally unhappy. I decided to call myself the Reverend Josiah Blackwood and had the scrivener write the following letter to my darling clerk:


Dear Sir, I have a mission from the Lord to tour this kingdom, warning all God's people against the evil dangers of drink. In my travels and peregrinations, I was accompanied by a young man named Philip, like you of good family, whose life has been ruined by deep howls of claret, pots of malmsey and jugs of London ale. During my sermons Philip would sit on a stool beside me, red-faced, bleary-eyed, farting, burping and making obscene gestures at the congregation. I would point to Philip as a living example of the devil drink. You'll be sorry to hear that, quite recently, Philip passed away. Now a good friend has given me your name as a possible replacement. I wonder if you would fill his place? You may contact me at the sign of the Green Kirtle opposite St Paul's Cathedral.

Yours, in the odour of sanctity, the Reverend Josiah Blackwood.


Well, I laughed myself sick. On my return from London I discovered my little turd of a chaplain was terrified lest Josiah Blackwood might come to visit. Oh, the laughs! Oh, the merriment! Weeks passed before he realized he had been gulled. I raise my hand and look at his little, plump face and solemnly swear that he has my permission to marry. I will adorn the church. I will lay on a banquet. I promise not to reveal anything about his past to his bride, on one condition -he must wear a mask throughout the ceremony. 'Oh Tempora! Oh Mores!'

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