THE DANCE OF DEATH
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
First world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9â15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright Â© 2009 by Kate Sedley.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
The dance of death
1. Roger the Chapman (Fictitious character) - Fiction
2. France - History - Louis XI, 1461-1483 - Fiction
3. Detective and mystery stories
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-123-1 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6745-2 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-116-4 (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
I was speechless.
This is not a condition that afflicts me often. My daughter, Elizabeth, will tell you that I am a garrulous old man, and that one of the reasons she encourages me to write these chronicles is to keep me quiet and to prevent me from boring her and my grandchildren with reminiscences. My son and stepson, when they come to visit me with their families, are more charitable and even, on occasion, encourage my recollections. But as Elizabeth points out, I don't live with them.
However, to return to our sheep, as the French say. (Heaven knows why, but there you are!) I was bereft of words. Indignation and shock rendered me dumb. Anger stopped my tongue. I was unable to find words to express my feelings. In short, as I've already remarked, I was speechless.
Not for long, mind you, but long enough to push back my stool with an almighty scraping of wood on stone, rise to my feet with such violence that I almost upset the table at which Timothy Plummer and I were sitting, and stride to the window, flinging open the casement with an equally outraged gesture, meant to indicate the state of my mind as I stared out moodily over the Thames.
It was a beautiful, sunny, mild October afternoon, and the river was even busier than usual with what seemed to be hundreds of small craft plying up and down and across the water like so many restless water-beetles. Among these small boats, the carved and gilded barges of the great and the good, the genuinely important and the self-important glided upriver to Westminster like swans among ducklings, bright with banners, velvet cushions and the vivid liveries â scarlet, deep blue, amber or emerald â of their oarsmen. A forest of masts and tackle bristled along the wharves, while the great cranes swung bales of cargo from ship to shore or shore to ship, depending upon arrival or departure.
Almost immediately below me, I could see the water-stairs of Baynard's Castle, the London home of the Dowager Duchess of York and the present temporary lodging of her younger son, the Duke of Gloucester. I could guess that he was champing at the bit to get home to Yorkshire, to his wife and little son, but King Edward refused to let him go until his brother's recent victory over the Scots, the recapture of the border town of Berwick and its return to English dominion, had been suitably celebrated with pageants and services of thanksgiving. These had occupied most of the past fortnight and were the reason I had remained in London instead of returning immediately to my wife and children in Bristol. I had sent a note to Adela by a friendly carter, warning her to expect me sometime within the next few weeks and assuring her of my safety after my great adventure. It had been my original intention to part company with the army after it reached Nottingham â where, indeed, it began to break up and the southern levies to scatter, the northerners having already left us â but Timothy Plummer had urged me to make the journey to London. Even so, I might have refused and followed my own inclinations, but for a very flattering message from the duke himself, requesting my presence at the victory celebrations.
Now, of course, I knew why.
I turned my head and glared at Timothy Plummer. âYou bastard!' I said softly. âYou cunning little toad! You snake! YouÂ .Â .Â .! YouÂ .Â .Â .!' Imagination failed me. I was too angry to think straight.
The spymaster general smiled placatingly. âThere's no need to upset yourself, Roger. A little trip across the Channel, what could be nicer? A few days â well, let's say a little longer, just to be on the safe side â and then you'll be back again and perfectly free to go home.'
I gritted my teeth. âI'm going home tomorrow,' I said. âI've written to Adela to say I'm coming. She and the children are expecting me.' (Not that the latter would be bothered.)
âErÂ .Â .Â . I'm afraid not.' Timothy suddenly looked guilty.
âWhat do you mean, you're afraid not?' I could sense treachery in the air and my guts were beginning to tie themselves in knots.
My companion did his best to look contrite, but only succeeded in looking smug. If I could have laid hands on my cudgel at that moment, I swear I would have rammed it down his throat. Well, I would have tried.
âIâerâI had your letter to Mistress Chapman intercepted. The carter was persuaded to hand it over in exchange for a small gratuity. I'm sorry, Roger, but Adela doesn't even know that you've returned from Scotland yet.'
âShe'll know the war's over,' I retorted hotly. âBristol gets news just as fast as London, you know. She'll be thinking about me, wâwondering where I am.' The enormity of what he had done choked me and made me stutter. I took a deep breath. âI've already done one favour for the Crown and come very near to being killed for my pains, and now you're asking me to do another. In case it's slipped your mind, Master Plummer, I'm a pedlar by trade â I repeat, a pedlar! â not one of your spies. My answer is no! I will not go to France!'
Timothy grimaced. âIf I've sunk to being “Master Plummer”, then you must be annoyed.'
âAnnoyed?' I could barely get the word out. âAnnoyed! I'm furious! Or I would be if I were going.'
The spymaster sighed. âI'm afraid you've no choice, my friend. This is an order from the king. He was so pleased with your work in Scotland that he wants to make use of your services again.'
âI didn't do anything in Scotland except come close to being murdered. What will happen this time? I'll probably be found floating face down in the Seine.'
I turned back to the window, once more staring down at the water-stairs. A woman now stood there, whether old or young I was unable to tell as, despite the warmth of the day, she was enveloped in a cloak with the hood pulled up. Maybe there was a cold breeze, as there so often was, blowing off the Thames. She made no move to hail any of the passing boats, so I presumed she was waiting for someone, and sure enough, even as I watched, one of the covered boats â price twopence instead of a penny â came across river from the Southwark bank and berthed at the foot of the steps. A young man sprang lightly out, handing over his fare to the oarsman with something of a flourish, as if to prove that money was no object â he could afford to protect himself against the sun as well as the rain â and ran quickly up towards her, smiling and holding out his hand.
He was very nattily dressed in a dark blue tunic, particoloured hose and shoes with pikes of a sufficient length to be caught round his knees with fine gold chains. To complete this outfit, he wore a peaked cap, which sported a long blue feather. Altogether, he fell into that category I have always thought of as âthe smart young gent', very pleased with himself and his appearance, and not caring who knows it. The lady greeted him with a chaste kiss on one cheek, but her back still being towards me, I was unable to see if her glance was approving or no, or whether she admired him as much as he obviously admired himself. Before I could even begin to work out the relationship between them, Timothy's voice had recalled my wandering attention.
âRoger, I'm sorry but you have no choice in this matter. The king has issued his orders. I promise that you'll be in no danger and that it won't be for long.'
I swung round and returned to the table, leaning on my hands and bending over it until my face was within inches of his.
âYou're a splendid liar, Timothy,' I snarled. âI suppose you have to be in your sort of work, but you don't convince me, not one little bit. I know your promises of old. Your mind's as twisted as a coil of rope and I wouldn't trust you beyond that door over there. In fact, not so far. All right!' I straightened up and flung out a hand. âI can guess what you're going to say: you came to my rescue in Scotland. But it was only by the merest chance that you were in time. And that wasn't supposed to be a dangerous mission, either, was it?' Bile choked me again and I sat down heavily on my stool.
âLook,' Timothy said, taking advantage of my enforced silence, âyou may not believe me, but I'm genuinely sorry about this. If it were up to me, you'd be on your way home tomorrow with the money in your purse that you've been promised. Well, that at least will be paid to you, and you certainly won't lose by this present mission. And what you have to do is quite simple and straightforward.'
I snorted derisively and was about to express my scepticism out loud when a thought struck me. Of course! The whole thing was ludicrous. I once more leaned across the table and gripped my companion's wrist.
âYou do realize, don't you, that I can't speak French?' I gave a great shout of laughter. âI'm not going to be any good to you if I can't speak the language, am I? Have you considered that?'
Timothy looked uncomfortable, but not, as I naturally assumed, because he had overlooked an obvious fact. âYou won't have to speak French,' he said, avoiding my eyes.
âWon't have to speak French?' I repeated. âThen whatever good am I going to be to you? And, furthermore, with my height, fair hair and blue eyes I'm simply going to shriek, “Englishman” at everyone I meet. Dangerous in itself. You know how our neighbours across the water love us! Like a rat loves poison.'
Timothy cleared his throat and squirmed a bit on his stool. He also looked embarrassed. I wondered what was coming.
âAs a matter of fact, none of that will matter. You're travelling as an Englishman and using your own name.'
I stared at him blankly for a moment or two before eventually finding my tongue. âIn God's name, what use is that going to be to you?'
He chewed his thumbnail before answering. âThe truth is, RogerÂ .Â .Â .' Again he hesitated.