Marbeck and the Gunpowder Plot, page 1
Table of Contents
A Selection of Recent Titles by John Pilkington
A selection of recent titles by John Pilkington
The Thomas the Falconer Series
THE RUFFLER’S CHILD
A RUINOUS WIND
THE RAMAGE HAWK
THE MAIDEN BELL
THE MAPMAKER’S DAUGHTER
THE JINGLER’S LUCK
THE MUSCOVY CHAIN
The Martin Marbeck Series
MARBECK AND THE DOUBLE-DEALER
MARBECK AND THE KING-IN-WAITING
MARBECK AND THE PRIVATEERS
MARBECK AND THE GUNPOWDER PLOT
MARBECK AND THE GUNPOWDER PLOT
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This first world edition published 2015
in Great Britain and the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.
Trade paperback edition first published
in Great Britain and the USA 2015 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.
eBook edition first published in 2015 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited
Copyright © 2015 by John Pilkington.
The right of John Pilkington to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Pilkington, John, 1948 June 11- author.
Marbeck and the Gunpowder Plot.
1. Marbeck, Martin (Fictitious character)–Fiction.
2. Fawkes, Guy, 1570-1606–Fiction. 3. Gunpowder Plot,
1605–Fiction. 4. Great Britain–History–James I,
1603-1625–Fiction. 5. Spy stories.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8514-2 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-616-9 (trade paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-667-0 (e-book)
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,
The sun was shrinking.
It was the twelfth day of October, and the outbreak of plague that had blighted London over this uneasy summer was receding into memory. The city basked in autumn sunshine, the clatter of hooves and the shouts of market sellers filling the air. Noon was approaching, the streets teemed with people, and at first few realized that the cries of birds had ceased; even the red kites were no longer wheeling about London Bridge. Then, as the sky began to darken, eyes turned upwards: the sun had changed, from a sphere to a narrowing crescent. A dark shape was sliding across it from east to west, and soon an eerie silence fell.
The phenomenon lasted for two hours. When the shadow finally passed and the sun assumed its proper shape, a sense of relief pervaded the city – indeed, pervaded all of southern England. But one word was on the lips of many: omen. It was a little over three weeks since the moon’s eclipse. Two such occurrences within a month … surely this was a portent?
At least one individual, however, remained in ignorance of the entire event. This man knelt in a tiny, windowless space fashioned by a mason’s skill within a thick limestone wall. Though the wall was but one of many in this grand country house, his only bodily comforts were a candle, a bottle of watered wine and a pail in which to relieve himself. From time to time he heard the searchers knocking on ceilings and panels, stamping on floors with their heavy boots, calling to one another. Yet Father Cornford of the Society of Jesus had no concerns for himself; if he were discovered, so be it. Capture and imprisonment, even execution, were the least of his fears. With eyes closed he intoned a desperate litany, all the while lashing himself over the shoulder with a whip of knotted cords: thirty or more of them, interwoven with scraps of twisted wire. Blood ran down his bare back, yet still he plied the scourge.
‘Peccator infirmus sum … indignus sum … domine, ignosce me … ’
Yet, as fervently as he prayed through the pain, lips moving in a whisper, the truth sat starkly in his mind, as immovable as a rock. It was a secret known to very few: a burden that weighed so heavily upon him, he could hardly bear it. Mayhem was set in motion: a murderous scheme that would tear England apart. But because the priest had learned of it under the sacred seal of the confessional, he was forbidden to speak of it.
Men would die, he feared, and likely in large numbers: some quickly, others slowly and in agony, yet Father Cornford could warn no one. A fortunate few might survive, but by then the city of London – and soon the entire nation – would be in turmoil. Tears ran down his cheeks; he was prey to the sin of despair. His response was to increase his efforts, to force the bloodstained thongs to bite deeper into his already lacerated flesh.
Outside a shadow had passed, the sun shone and birds flew again. But in the priest’s hiding-hole the candle flickered and went out, and all was dark.
Marbeck sensed the big man’s presence before he heard him. By the time he felt a tug at his sleeve, his hand was on his dagger-hilt – whereupon a voice sounded close to his ear.
‘Ye’ve no need for that fancy toy.’
He turned and let out a breath. ‘MacNeish.’
‘Aye. It’s been a while, has it not?’
The man’s clothing had that familiar scent of coarse Scottish wool and old leather, while his breath smelled of strong drink. Marbeck looked him over before turning back to the lantern-lit platform, visible through the throng of shouting men. The roar of the cockpit, the amphitheatre of hope, was all about them.
‘D’ye have money on Spiky Jack?’ Colum MacNeish pushed himself forward, his rough coat brushing Marbeck’s good doublet. ‘I hear they put brandy in his water – raises his temper, but slows him down in the end. He’ll tire before the black does.’
‘What is it you want?’ Marbeck asked. In fact, he had wagered five crowns on the red cock known as Spiky Jack, but he wasn’t about to admit it to MacNeish. The man had been known to lack discretion on occasions, and in an informer that was a serious flaw.
‘I thought we might do business,’ came the
‘Another time, perhaps,’ Marbeck said absently; the squawking of the gamecocks was reaching fever pitch. He glimpsed a flurry of dust and feathers through the press of bodies. The shouting grew louder as gamblers urged both birds on to the kill.
‘What’d I tell ye? Yon black cock’s a dancing speedwell.’ MacNeish craned his neck, peering above the throng. ‘His spurs are better fashioned, too … Your bird looks a sorry sight.’
‘My bird?’ Marbeck frowned. ‘How do you know which one I favour?’
The other gave a wry grin. ‘’Tis written on your brow, John Sands.’ He used the old cover name; he could not know that just now Marbeck was Lawrence Tucker, country gentleman and self-confessed spendthrift. Meanwhile, men surged about them, bawling and gesticulating. Spiky Jack was cursed and berated, but to no avail. Finally, a cry of dismay sounded from someone at the front, followed by a chorus of jeers and laughter.
The cock-master’s voice rose above the din. ‘The red has lost the field – Black Plume wins!’
A cheer went up, followed by scattered applause. Marbeck sighed and was about to turn away, then suddenly remembered why he was here; his gamester’s instinct had almost got the better of him. Raising his head, he caught sight of the man he’d been following for the past few days: Ferdinand Gower, Papist and ex-soldier, seemingly flushed with victory. Friends clapped him on the shoulder, while the fellow’s smile was confirmation enough.
‘Who’s that smirking cove?’
For a moment, Marbeck had almost forgotten MacNeish too. ‘Some lucky devil who bet on the black,’ he answered tartly. ‘How should I know?’
Seeing he was about to move off, the Scotsman put a hand on his arm. ‘Wait, I pray ye …’ His grin had faded. ‘I said there are tidings, and ye know I have a good ear for intelligence, Sands. I’ve been speaking with one of the Palace servants—’
‘Whitehall gossip?’ Marbeck shrugged. ‘I can hear that any time I please, from a dozen throats.’
‘Not this, you can’t.’ The other eyed him keenly: despite the drink he’d taken – or perhaps because of it – he was in earnest. ‘But I can’t talk here, you understand.’ He waited expectantly.
‘You spoke of shillings,’ Marbeck said dryly, reaching for his purse. ‘Take one for charity’s sake, and go quench your thirst somewhere.’
‘I thought ye knew me better than that, sirrah,’ MacNeish retorted, with a dismissive gesture. ‘There are stirrings … cloudy matters that touch on the King’s own children! Is that not worth a little of your precious time?’ He jerked his head to indicate the fighting table. Men were milling about, clamouring to place wagers on the next bout. Marbeck’s quarry, it seemed, was among them. Encouraged by his win perhaps, Gower moved closer to the table. Likely he would be here for at least another hour.
In spite of himself, Marbeck relented. ‘Perhaps I’ll take some air … it’s stifling in here.’
He turned and threaded his way through the gamblers: men of all stations, from noblemen in cloaks and crowned hats to noisy apprentice boys in plain fustian. MacNeish followed, bonnet in hand, stepping through the dirty straw. At the doors he waited for Marbeck to pass through before making his own way out. There in Shoe Lane, the main route between Fleet Street and Holborn, they stood in a biting wind.
‘Well?’ Marbeck raised an eyebrow.
MacNeish lifted his face to the sky, drawing deeply of the cool air. The evening was drawing in, and the city gates would soon be closing. A few people were in the lane, moving towards Holborn and the church of St Andrew. Lights showed at windows, while from the cockpit behind noise rose again; the next avian battle was about to commence.
‘I’ve not one, but two tales to relate,’ the Scotsman said finally. ‘One came from the fellow at the court, a servant to Lady Carey. The wife of Sir Robert Carey, that is—’
‘I know who she is,’ Marbeck broke in. ‘What is it you’re so keen to tell me?’
‘Very well …’ MacNeish sniffed. ‘I’ve a notion to save my heaviest news for last. That way you’ll listen, while I tell my first – which is of grave import too, I might say. It stems from among my own folk … Aye, I mind your impatience, Sands. I mean Little Scotland – that’s what you’d call it, is it not?’
Marbeck said nothing. The district so named was but a short way from where they stood: the crowded tenements about Portpoole, where the poorer countrymen of King James clustered. They were the ones who had followed their sovereign south over the past two years in hopes of preferment which, for most, had proved groundless.
‘Aye, they’re grave tidings,’ MacNeish was saying gloomily. When Marbeck still waited, he moistened his lips and in a sombre tone announced: ‘There’s a stratagem in train to obliterate us.’
Marbeck looked blank; then he wanted to laugh. MacNeish’s heightened sense of the dramatic had always amused him. The man’s face was so dour, he could be preaching of Judgement Day. ‘When you say us,’ he said, ‘do you mean—’
‘I mean the Scots, of course!’ The highlander’s beard twitched. ‘There’s a scheme to decimate us and to force those that are left back to our own country … to the mountains and glens, if you will. It’s no secret that we’re hated here – has King Jimmy not outlawed the swaggerers who assail us in the streets? Yet the attacks persist, along wi’ the barracking and the slander. Many have given up and gone, while others grow bitter and carry arms—’
‘While a few have grown rich and loaf about the Palace, or ride to hunt with the King,’ Marbeck put in mildly.
But the other was not to be gainsaid. ‘Likely that’s a part of it too!’ he snapped. ‘Jealousy, I mean … Either way, Sands, you should hear me out. Have I once lied to you, or spun you a—’
‘Enough.’ Marbeck raised a hand briefly, then glanced about to see that no one was within earshot. ‘I need more than fears and rumour. Do you have names, something to point me at?’
‘In the matter of what I’ve just related, I do not,’ MacNeish admitted. ‘Though I swear it’s beyond mere chaff; there’s a stirring, a danger ye can almost smell. Besides, what of the late portents of sun and moon? We’ve had plague already, and the year isn’t over. Or do ye scoff at such notions, as others do?’
Marbeck gave a shake of his head, which might mean assent or otherwise, whereupon MacNeish let out a sigh. ‘Well now, I’ve spoken of that threat – which is as real as I stand here – and I’ll leave you to turn it about,’ he said. ‘Which ye will in time, John Sands – mayhap I know you better than you think.’
They eyed each other; for all this man’s faults, Marbeck had never been able to dislike him. He knew it was time he went back into the cockpit to continue his surveillance. But seeing MacNeish’s eagerness, he said: ‘What is it you meant, about matters concerning the royal children?’
The other lowered his head. ‘I believe it’s a matter of a kidnap,’ he said.
Eyes narrowing, Marbeck peered into his face. ‘Kidnap by whom – or should I say of whom?’ he asked. ‘Prince Henry, the Princess Elizabeth or the young Duke Charles … or do you mean the infant Mary?’
‘Now I have your ear, at last.’ MacNeish drew himself up with renewed dignity. ‘To tell truly, I know not which of them it is. I doubt it’s the bairn, since she’s but six months old. As for the princes—’
‘Wait – are you serious?’ Marbeck stared at him; the information was only just sinking in. ‘Where did you hear this?’ he demanded. ‘I need testimony – all you’ve got. Or I swear, MacNeish, I’ll have you in front of the—’
‘Then will ye let me finish?’ The highlander glowered at him. ‘I told ye already – I go
Impatiently, Marbeck brushed the details aside. ‘The substance. What did this Prestall tell you? You or your wife, I care not which.’
‘He told me little,’ MacNeish admitted. ‘And he was drinking at the time … but I saw how the matter weighed upon him. There’s a man … a royal official and a steward of powerful family. He travels a lot, collecting rents in the North Country for his lord. When he’s here, he keeps an uncommon eye on the young princes – both of them. Prince Henry in his household at St James’s, but especially the young Duke in his chambers at Whitehall. For all I know, he watches the princess too. She lives at some great house in the Midlands …’
‘Coombe Abbey,’ Marbeck broke in, his frown deepening. ‘But this means little. Many keep an eye on the royal heirs, for their safety. The King encourages it—’
‘Aye, that he does.’ MacNeish nodded gravely. ‘He was kidnapped himself as a boy and will never forget it. But this man I speak of … He’s different.’ Pausing dramatically, he delivered his revelation. ‘He’s a Papist.’
‘Is he indeed?’ Marbeck sighed. ‘Then how did he get to be a royal official? He’d have had to prove his allegiance – swear the Oath of Supremacy.’
MacNeish put on a grim smile. ‘Because his lord and kinsman got him the appointment and arranged it so he didnae have to take the oath – d’ye see now?’
At that, a suspicion arose in Marbeck’s mind. ‘This lord,’ he ventured. ‘Who might he be?’
MacNeish’s face fell. ‘If ye ken it already, then speak his name,’ he muttered. ‘Or I might suspect ye merely want to skimp on my payment.’
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