Paul Doherty: Satan in St Mary

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Paul Doherty Satan in St Mary
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    Satan in St Mary
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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The hooded leader listened as if concentrating on something else and bent to whisper to the masked speaker on the right, who turned to address the group. "Let the clerk, whoever he is, " he replied, "flounder about. He is just one man. There are many traps. Rest content. He will be stopped. " His voice rose arrogantly. "The day of deliverance will come. We will cleanse the country of all kings, bishops, priests and others who lord it over us. Rest content with that!"

The group, sensing that the meeting was over, began to disperse one by one, each bowing to the hooded leader before departing. When they had all left, the speaker turned to the Hooded One and pointed to the old crone who still sat as if in a trance on the beaten dirt floor.

"She waits for her reward, " he said. "What shall we give her?"

"She has served her purpose, " came the whispered reply. "Cut her throat!"


Hugh Corbett, clerk to the King's Justices in King's Bench, sat huddled in his blankets on the side of his pallet bed. His thin white face under a mass of black wiry hair was strained and pinched with cold. He pulled the blankets around him and then stretched out cold numbed fingers to a small charcoal brazier which was at last beginning to glow, thinning his breath as it hung heavy on the icy air. He was cold and reluctant to wash in the bowl of lukewarm water that a servant had just brought him. He was often teased by his colleagues when they learnt he insisted on washing all his body once a day. He shrugged at the thought, dropped the blankets and, ignoring the cold, began to rub his body with a cloth soaked in the water. A physician, an Arab, who owed a favour, had once informed him that it was a way of limiting infection. He stopped and stared dully at the cloth. Infection! He wondered if anything could have stopped the plague killing his wife and child. A dull ache from long-buried pain sent shivers through his body and he began to dry himself roughly. His wife and child, happy faces, strong healthy bodies, clean-limbed then, in a matter of days, both transformed to stinking, retching shadows as the buboes appeared in pus-filled sores all over their bodies. They were dead almost before he knew it, buried in the quiet churchyard of Alfriston in Sussex.

Ten years, almost ten years, he thought and the pain was still there. He looked down at his body, thin, sinewy and crisscrossed with scars, legacies of his part in King Edward's wars in Wales. He stretched, then turned his arm to look at the long purple scar which ran from shoulder to wrist. He had received it seven, or was it eight, years ago? He had forgotten except that his family were dead and buried long before it happened. He had volunteered to serve in the royal household during the Welsh expedition, hoping perhaps that Death which had missed him when the plague had struck would find him there. He had gone and been in the thick of the fighting as Edward I's armies edged their way up the misty treacherous valleys of South Wales, hunting for Llewellyn's army, frightened of the Welsh who used the misty forlorn marshes and bogs to loose their barbed lethal arrows or spring an ambush. Their wild naked warriors would appear suddenly with their long wicked hunting knives, ready to kill the stragglers or unwary.

One night they had launched a surprise attack on the main English camp looking for the royal pavilion. He had been one of those who had stopped them, fighting desperately outside the very tent of the King, locked in combat with a group of Welsh, whose naked greasy bodies pressed against the line of bodyguards hastily assembled to block their progress. He had stood and scrabbled in the mud, hacking and lashing out, screaming curses until his voice went hoarse. Eventually the Welsh were pushed back and only then had he realized that his left arm was one bloody gash. Of course, the King had been grateful, Edward never forgot a favour or an injury. Hugh's wounds were tended by a royal physician and when he returned to London, he was not too surprised to find he had been given preferment, being appointed a clerk to the Royal Justices in King's Bench. He had been there ever since, drawing up the

bills of indenture, filing the conclusions of the court, almost oblivious to the human misery such records contained. Except today. Today would be different and this made him dress hastily while he peered through the cracks in one of the shutters and tried to guess what hour it now was. The bells of a nearby church tolling for Mass had woken him. His appointment was at noon and he believed he still had two hours to make the journey, although the dense fog outside would make the travelling more difficult. He finished dressing, bound a belt with a long leather dagger sheath and small purse around his waist; he drew a thick woollen cloak from the room's one and only chest and left the chamber to make his way down the long winding wooden stairs. He remembered half way down that he had not locked the door and turned to go back but then shrugged. A small garret with a rush strewn floor, simple bed and an almost empty wooden chest would scarcely tempt the most desperate thief. Corbett turned and made his way down into the street.

Outside the morning mist still hung heavy above the noise of the carts. Hugh walked up Thames Street staying in the middle, away from the windows of the overhanging houses from where maids were already dumping the ordure and rubbish of the night so the scavengers or rakers could clear it away. The city fathers had condemned such practices and even appointed surveyors of the streets to fine offenders and kill any animals found rooting in such rubbish. Hugh wrapped his cloak tighter round him and realized such ordinances had been forgotten during the recent revolt. These were dangerous times even during the day, and Hugh's hand beneath his cloak rested on the handle of the long Welsh dagger he kept stuck in his belt. Lawlessness was rife, 'roaring boys', gangs of ruffians roamed the streets and the hue and cry was often raised by horn or voice in a usually futile attempt to capture some criminal. Certain areas, like the precincts and graveyard of St. Paul's, were virtually beyond the law and were now the sanctuary for every villain, murderer and thief in the capital.

As Hugh moved out of Queenshithe, the city was coming to life. Eel-sellers, coal-boys, water-sellers and the swarming perceptive beggars appeared to pursue their flourishing trade. The wooden fronts of small shops were brought down and the merchants and tradesmen muffled against the cold began to tout for business. Corbett ignored them all as he made his way down to the windswept, bitter cold river and, at the nearest mooring steps, hired a wherry to take him through the misty, choppy Thames to Westminster Hall. The journey was most unpleasant and, by the time he reached the palace, Corbett almost wished he had walked. He climbed the steps and crossed a rutted track to the main causeway which led to the great gabled Palace of Westminster and the majestic gardens, walls and buildings of the Abbey. He had been taking the same route for years but every day, the awesome Abbey Church with its pillars, arches and towers always caught his breath. A mass of beautifully carved stone seemingly suspended, fairy-like in the misty air.

This morning, however, he kept on walking, pushing his way through the gathering crowds and into the great vaulted hall of the palace. Here, in various corners and alcoves sat the different royal courts, each cordoned off, its red-robed judges, soberly dressed clerks and black-robed lawyers dispensing judgments and justice. This, as well as the buildings and rooms around the hall were the King's government and Corbett's usual place of work but, today, it was different. He caught the eye of one of the Chancellor's clerks, showed him the writ and was then led through the hall and into a small chamber. He immediately dropped to one knee when he recognized the Chancellor, Robert Burnell, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Small, swathed in red ermine-lined robes, Burnell reminded Hugh of a small cherubim he had seen in a painting in a rich city merchant's house. Yet there was nothing angelic about the large bald head or the hooked nose above thin lips and firm chin, while the narrow, agate-hard eyes were more like those of a hunting dog. These eyes now studied Hugh for a while and then, in a surprisingly soft deep voice, bade him rise and sit on a stool a harassed clerk had brought across before being summarily dismissed from the room.

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