Thomas Chaloner’s First Exploit in Restoration London
For some, the early years of the Restoration are giddy, glorious ones. For others, like Thomas Chaloner, they are uncertain, murky and dangerous.
Chaloner has just returned from ten years abroad in the employ of the Commonwealth, and is now seeking to work for the King. He manages to find a position with the Earl of Clarendon, and is sent to investigate the rumour that there is a cache of gold buried beneath the Tower of London. But he is quickly seduced by other, more deadly, secrets, and discovers that his predecessor in Clarendon’s employ was murdered …
Against a backdrop of the shadows of Puritanism and of the sunlit decadence of a gaudy court, Susanna Gregory has woven a compelling tale of the baggage of betrayal, the weight of secrets, and the pit of vipers that eternally infest the corridors of power.
A Conspiracy of Violence is also available as a Soundings Audio Book, read by Gordon Griffin. It can be ordered as either CD or cassette.
London, December 1662
Chaloner ran as hard as he could, but was nowhere near fast enough to gain the ground he had lost while stopping to tend the dead boy. The two robbers had turned right along the wide avenue called Holborn, and were almost to the bridge, where he knew they would disappear into the chaotic maze of alleys that crowded the banks of the Fleet River. He forced himself on. Then the shorter of the pair collided with a cart, and his accomplice screamed abuse at him until he could regain his feet. Chaloner began to catch up, but was still too far away to capitalise on the mishap. When they saw they would reach the labyrinth of slums unchecked, the taller of the two turned to give Chaloner a triumphant, jeering salute before ducking down a lane. Chaloner tore towards the entrance, but when he reached it, feet skating across the treacherous, dung-slick cobbles, he found it empty.
The alley was not for the faint-hearted. It lay close to the Fleet River, which meant it reeked not only of sewage, but of the odorous fumes released by nearby tanneries, soap-boilers and slaughterhouses. Over the years, tenements had clawed their way upwards to accommodate the increasing demand for housing, and, with each new floor, they inched closer to the buildings opposite, so the sky was now no more than a slender grey ribbon high above. At street level the passage was a thin, dark tunnel, too narrow for carts, and the ground underfoot was soft with old rubbish, squelching and sticky from the night of rain. More lanes radiated off it – dismal, stinking fissures that never saw sunlight.
Cautiously, Chaloner eased down it, feeling the onset of the familiar stiffness in his left leg that always followed vigorous exercise. Usually, the old war injury was no more than a nuisance – an occasional cramp when the weather turned damp – but a furious run, like the one he had just made from Lincoln’s Inn, had set off the nagging ache he knew would plague him for the rest of the day. He tried to ignore it, concentrating on his surroundings as he allowed the dagger from his sleeve to slide into the palm of his hand for the second time that morning.
Out in the open, on the wide, bustling thoroughfares of roads like Holborn or the Strand, Chaloner was more than a match for any common cut-throat – time served with Cromwell’s New Model Army before Thurloe had engaged him as a spy meant he knew how to use the weapons he carried – but the cramped, sordid confines of the capital’s slums represented a different challenge. He knew it was rash to follow criminals into a place where its inhabitants would think nothing of killing a stranger and dumping his body in the river, but the simple truth was that he could not return to Thurloe and admit defeat – not if he wanted any sort of career in espionage.
He edged along the alley. Nothing moved, except rats foraging among discarded offal from an unlicensed butcher’s shop and a few rags swinging on a washing line high above his head. The lane emptied into a larger street, and he hung back to assess it. To his right was a tiny square dominated by a rust- and slime-dappled water pump; to his left was a dung-cart loaded with barrels for collecting the urine and faeces used by tanneries and gunpowder manufacturers. The cart was so wide that it filled the street completely, leaving gaps of no more than the width of a hand between it and the walls to either side.
Chaloner suspected the dung-collector had been paid or forced to leave his wagon in a position that would prevent pursuit. The vehicle’s stench seared the back of his throat, and he did not relish the prospect of scrambling across its top – he knew that as soon as he did, the driver would flick his whip and the whole thing would jolt forward. If he did not topple into the brimming barrels of his own accord, someone would give him a helping hand, or stab or shoot at him when he was struggling for balance.
He tensed when a window creaked above him, then stepped smartly under the overhanging façade of a towering, five-storied tenement. Swill from a chamber-pot splattered to the ground, joining the refuse and ashes that formed the fetid carpet under his feet. He edged forward, narrowing the gap between him and the cart until he was close enough to crouch down and peer underneath it.
He saw several pairs of human legs, and there was a low murmur of conversation, although he could not hear what was being said. He stood abruptly when an old woman with a donkey approached from the direction of the square. She released the low, mournful cry that every Londoner knew meant there was fresh milk to be purchased for children and invalids. Customers would answer the call with jugs, and the animal would be milked on the spot. The woman was not alone in advertising her wares. From somewhere deeper inside the labyrinth came the rising yell of a fish-seller, while the bass bellow of a tallow merchant offered the stinking fat that could be turned into cheap candles.
Chaloner considered his options. The robbers were confident now they were on home ground, lingering at the front of the wagon to chat with the dung-collector. And they had good reason to feel safe: even if Chaloner did manage to scale the cart and lay hold of them, then what would he do? Their friends would never allow him to march them to the nearest parish constable, and besides, constables were notoriously corrupt, and just as likely to slip a dagger between Chaloner’s ribs and release the thieves, if the right coins appeared. The sensible decision would be to return to Lincoln’s Inn and tell Thurloe that he had done his best, but the culprits had been too far away by the time he had been ordered to give chase.
But he could scarcely apologise to Thurloe for failing to catch Charles Stewart’s killers with one breath, and ask for a testimonial with the next. If he wanted to convince the ex-Spymaster of his worth, then he had no choice but to do as he had been ordered.