Dark Fire, p.1C. J. Sansom
Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Praise for Dark Fire
“With weapons of mass destruction, political maneuvering, social injustice, poverty, violence, poor sanitation, the threat of war and religious intolerance, C. J. Sansom’s highly atmospheric and wellcrafted sixteenth-century thriller not only vividly describes the turbidity of Tudor London, but also perhaps serves as a reminder that for many people on this planet little has changed.”
‘Atmospheric and well researched... Dark Fire is engaging, entertaining, and somehow escapist and educational at the same time—no mean feat.“
Praise for Dissolution,
the first book in the Matthew Shardlake series
“With his remarkable debut, C. J. Sansom can lay claim to a place among the most distinguished of modern historical novelists.”
—P. D. James
“Extraordinarily impressive. The best crime novel I have read this year.”
“Terrific. Historical fiction at its best.”
“Sansom seems to have been born with, or instinctively acquired, that precious balance of creativity and research that lets a mystery set in another time walk a delicate line between history and humanity.”
—The Chicago Tribune
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C. J. Sansom earned a Ph.D. in history and was a lawyer before becoming a full-time writer. His first Matthew Shardlake novel, Dissolution, is available from Penguin. He lives in Sussex, England.
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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2005
Published in Penguin Books 2006
Copyright © C. J. Sansom, 2004
All rights reserved
This is a work offiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business
establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-04257-1
1. Great Britain—History—Henry VIII, 1509-1547—Fiction. 2. Cromwell, Thomas, Earl of Essex,
1485?—1504—Fiction. 3. Attorney and client—Fiction. 4. Trials (Murder)—Fiction. 1. Title.
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The Wentworth Family of Walbrook, London
I HAD LEFT MY HOUSE in Chancery Lane early, to go to the Guildhall to discuss a case in which I was acting for the City Council. Although the far more serious matter I would have to deal with on my return weighed on my mind, as I rode down a quiet Fleet Street I was able to take a little pleasure in the soft airs of early morning. The weather was very hot for late May, the sun already a fiery ball in the clear blue sky, and I wore only a light doublet under my black lawyer’s robe. As my old horse Chancery ambled along, the sight of the trees in full leaf made me think again of my ambition to retire from practice, to escape the noisome crowds of London. In two years’ time I would be forty, in which year the old man’s age begins; if business was good enough I might do it then. I passed over Fleet Bridge with its statues of the ancient kings Gog and Magog. The City wall loomed ahead, and I braced myself for the stink and din of London.
At the Guildhall I met with Mayor Hollyes and the Common Council serjeant. The council had brought an action in the Assize of Nuisance against one of the rapacious land speculators buying up the dissolved monasteries, the last of which had gone down in this spring of 1540. This particular speculator, to my shame, was a fellow barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, a false and greedy rogue named Bealknap. He had got hold of a small London friary, and rather than bringing down the church, had converted it into a hotchpotch of unsavoury tenements. He had excavated a common cesspit for his tenants, but it was a botched job and the tenants of the neighbouring houses, which the council owned, were suffering grievously from the penetration of filth into their cellars.
The assize had ordered Bealknap to make proper provision but the wretch had served a writ of error in King’s Bench, alleging the friary’s original charter excluded it from the City’s jurisdiction and that he
I PLANNED TO RETURN home the way I had come, via Cheapside, but when I reached the junction with Lad Lane I found Wood Street blocked by an overturned cart full of lead and roof tiles from the demolition of St Bartholomew’s Priory. A heap of mossy tiles had spilled out, filling the roadway. The cart was big, pulled by two great shire horses, and though the driver had freed one, the other lay helpless on its side between the shafts. Its huge hooves kicked out wildly, smashing tiles and raising clouds of dust. It neighed in terror, eyes rolling at the gathering crowd. I heard someone say more carts were backed up almost to Cripplegate.
It was not the first such scene in the City of late. Everywhere there was a crashing of stone as the old buildings fell: so much land had become vacant that even in overcrowded London the courtiers and other greedy men of spoil into whose hands it had fallen scarce knew how to handle it all.
I turned Chancery round and made my way through the maze of narrow lanes that led to Cheapside, in places scarce wide enough for a horse and rider to pass under the overhanging eaves of the houses. Although it was still early, the workshops were open and people crowded the lanes, slowing my passage, journeymen and street traders and water carriers labouring under their huge conical baskets. It had hardly rained in a month, the butts were dry and they were doing good business. I thought again of the meeting to come; I had been dreading it and now I would be late.
I wrinkled my nose at the mighty stink the hot weather drew from the sewer channel, then cursed roundly as a rooting pig, its snout smeared with some nameless rubbish, ran squealing across Chancery’s path and made him jerk aside. A couple of apprentices in their blue doublets, returning puffy-faced from some late revel, glanced round at my oath and one of them, a stocky, rough-featured young fellow, gave me a contemptuous grin. I set my lips and spurred Chancery on. I saw myself as he must have, a whey-faced hunchback lawyer in black robe and cap, a pencase and dagger at my waist instead of a sword.
It was a relief to arrive at the broad paved way of Cheapside. Crowds milled round the stalls of Cheap Market; under their bright awnings the peddlers called ‘What d’ye lack?’ or argued with white-coifed goodwives. The occasional lady of wealth wandered around the stalls with her armed servants, face masked with a cloth vizard to protect her white complexion from the sun.
Then, as I turned past the great bulk of St Paul‘s, I heard the loud cry of a pamphlet seller. A scrawny fellow in a stained black doublet, a pile of papers under his arm, he was howling at the crowd. ’Child murderess of Walbrook taken to Newgate!’ I paused and leaned down to pass him a farthing. He licked his finger, peeled off a sheet and handed it up to me, then went on bawling at the crowd. ’The most terrible crime of the year!’
I stopped to read the thing in the shadow cast by the great bulk of St Paul’s. As usual the cathedral precincts were full of beggars - adults and children leaning against the walls, thin and ragged, displaying their sores and deformities in the hope of charity. I averted my eyes from their pleading looks and turned to the pamphlet. Beneath a woodcut of a woman’s face - it could have been anybody, it was just a sketch of a face beneath disordered hair - I read:Terrible Crime in Walbrook; Child Murdered by His Jealous Cousin On the evening of May 16th last, a Sabbath Day, at the fair house of Sir Edwin Wentworth of Walbrook, a member of the Mercers’ Company, his only son, a boy of twelve, was found at the bottom of the garden well with his neck broken. Sir Edwin’s fair daughters, girls of fifteen and sixteen, told how the boy had been attacked by their cousin, Elizabeth Wentworth, an orphan whom Sir Edwin had taken into his house from charity on the death of her father, and had been pushed by her into the deep well. She is taken to Newgate, where she is to go before the Justices the 29th May next. She refuses to plead, and so is likely to be pressed, or if she pleads to be found guilty and to go to Tyburn next hanging day.
The thing was badly printed on cheap paper and left inky smears on my fingers as I thrust it into my pocket and turned down Paternoster Row. So the case was public knowledge, another half-penny sensation. Innocent or guilty, how could the girl get a fair trial from a London jury now? The spread of printing had brought us the English Bible, ordered the year before to be set in every church; but it had also brought pamphlets like this, making money for backstreet printers and fodder for the hangman. Truly, as the ancients taught us, there is nothing under the moon, however fine, that is not subject to corruption.
IT WAS NEARLY NOON when I reined Chancery in before my front door. The sun was at its zenith and when I untied the ribbon of my cap it left a line of sweat under my chin. Joan, my housekeeper, opened the door as I dismounted, a worried expression on her plump face.
‘He is here,’ she whispered, glancing behind her. ‘That girl’s uncle—’
‘I know.’ Joseph would have ridden through London. Perhaps he too had seen the pamphlet. ‘What case is he in?’
‘Sombre, sir. He is in the parlour. I gave him a glass of small beer.’
‘Thank you.’ I passed the reins to Simon, the boy Joan had recently employed to help her about the house, and who now scampered up, a stick-thin, yellow-haired urchin. Chancery was not yet used to him and pawed at the gravel, nearly stepping on one of the boy’s bare feet. Simon spoke soothingly to him, then gave me a hasty bow and led the horse round to the stable.
‘That boy should have shoes,’ I said.
Joan shook her head. ‘He won’t, sir. Says they chafe his feet. I told him he should wear shoes in a gentleman’s house.’
‘Tell him he shall have sixpence if he wears them a week,’ I said. I took a deep breath. ‘And now I had better see Joseph.’
JOSEPH WENTWORTH was a plump, ruddy-cheeked man in his early fifties, uncomfortable in his best doublet of sober brown. It was wool, too hot for this weather, and he was perspiring. He looked like what he was; a working farmer, owner of some poor lands out in Essex. His two younger brothers had sought their fortunes in London, but Joseph had remained on the farm. I had first acted for him two years before, defending his farm against a claim by a large landowner who wanted it to put to sheep. I liked Joseph, but my heart had sunk when I received his letter a few days before. I had been tempted to reply, truthfully, that I doubted I could help him, but his tone had been desperate.
His face brightened as he saw me, and he came over and shook my hand eagerly. ‘Master Shardlake! Good day, good day. You had my letter?’
‘I did. You are staying in London?’
‘At an inn down by Queenhithe,’ he said. ‘My brother has forbidden me his house for my championing of our niece.’ There was a desperate look in his hazel eyes. ‘You must help me, sir, please. You must help Elizabeth.’
I decided no good would be done by beating round the bushes. I took the pamphlet from my pocket and handed it to him.
‘Have you seen this, Joseph?’
‘Yes.’ He ran a hand through his curly black hair. ‘Are they allowed to say these things? Is she not innocent till proven guilty?’
‘That’s the technical position. It doesn’t help much in practice.’
He took a delicately embroidered handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. ‘I visited Elizabeth in Newgate this morning,’ he said. ‘God’s mercy, it’s a terrible place. But she still won’t talk.’ He ran his hand over his plump, badly shaven cheeks. ‘Why won’t she talk, why? It’s her only hope of saving herself.’ He looked across at me pleadingly, as though I had the answer. I raised a hand.
‘Come, Joseph, sit down. Let us start at the beginning. I know only what you told me in your letter, which is little more than is in this foul pamphlet.’
He took a chair, looking
‘Now, one of your two brothers is the father of the boy who died - is that right? - and the other was father to Elizabeth?’
Joseph nodded, making a visible effort to pull himself together.
‘My brother Peter was Elizabeth’s father. He took himself to London as a boy and got himself apprenticed as a dyer. He did moderately well, but since the French embargo - well, trade has gone right down these last few years.’
I nodded. Since England’s break with Rome the French had banned the export of alum, which was essential for the dyeing trade. It was said even the king wore black hose now.
‘Peter’s wife died two years ago.’ Joseph went on. ‘When the bloody flux took Peter last autumn there was barely enough left to pay for his funeral and nothing for Elizabeth.’
‘She was their only child?’
‘Yes. She wanted to come and live with me, but I thought she’d be better off with Edwin. I’ve never married, after all. And he’s the one with the money and the knighthood.’ A note of bitterness entered his voice.
‘And he is the mercer the pamphlet mentions?’
Joseph nodded. ‘Edwin has a good business head. When he followed Peter to London as a boy he went straight into the cloth trade. He knew where the best profits could be made: he has a fine house by the Walbrook now. To be fair, Edwin offered to take Elizabeth in. He’s already given a home to our mother - she moved from the farm when she lost her sight through the smallpox ten years ago. He was always her favourite son.’ He looked up with a wry smile. ‘Since Edwin’s wife died five years ago, Mother has run his household with a rod of iron, although she’s seventy-four and blind.’ I saw he was twisting the handkerchief in one hand; the embroidery was becoming torn.
Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes