Thomas Chaloner’s Second Exploit in Restoration London
Public London is executing plans to mark the third anniversary of the Restoration. Private London – murky, dangerous and seething with intrigue – is entertaining other plans. And other executions.
Two such deaths are that of wealthy merchant Matthew Webb, stabbed on the Strand one night, and an apparent vagrant, shot during a royal procession. Intelligence agent Thomas Chaloner soon realises that both murders point in one direction: upwards, towards the great and supposedly good, whose wily ploys seep from the sewers of Spitalfields to the Palace of White Hall.
Blood on the Strand weaves a delightful, chilling, labyrinthine and always intriguing web around Restoration London, breathing life – both high and low – into the past.
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Blood on the Strand is also available as a Soundings Audio Book, read by Gordon Griffin. It can be ordered as either CD or cassette or downloaded from iTunes.
Matthew Webb was cold, wet and angry. The rain, which had started as an unpleasant, misty drizzle, was now the kind of drenching downpour that was likely to last all night. Fuming, he adjusted his hat in the hope of stopping water from seeping down the back of his neck, but the material was sodden, and fiddling only made matters worse. Cheapside was pitch dark at that late hour, and he could not see where he was putting his feet, so it was only a matter of time before he stepped in a deep puddle that shot a foul-smelling sludge up the back of his legs. He ground his teeth in impotent rage, and when the bells of St Mary-le-Bow chimed midnight, he felt like smashing them.
It was a long walk from African House on Throgmorton Street to his handsome residence on The Strand, and he should have been relaxing in the luxury of his personal carriage, not stumbling along the city’s potholed, rain-swept streets like a beggar. He cursed his wife for her abrupt announcement that she had had enough of the riotous Guinea Company dinner and was going home early. And how dare she forget to send the vehicle back for him once it had delivered her safe and dry to Webb Hall!
It was not just a thoughtless spouse who had earned his animosity that night, either. There were also his Guinea Company colleagues, who had seen his predicament but had failed to come to his rescue. It was true they were drunk, because it had been a long evening and the Company was famously lavish with wine at its feasts, but when everyone had spilled noisily out of African House at the end of the dinner, it had been obvious that Webb was the only one whose coachman was not there to collect him. Surely, one of his fellow merchants could have offered to help? But no – they had selfishly packed themselves inside their grand transports and rattled away without so much as a backwards glance.
Webb had certainly expected Sir Richard Temple to step in and save him. The seating arrangements that evening had placed them next to each other, and they had talked for hours. Cannily, Webb had used the opportunity to do business – he owned a ship that brought sugar from Barbados, while Temple was thinking of purchasing a sugar plantation with money from the rich widow he intended to marry. It was obvious they could benefit each other, and Webb was always pleased to be of service to the gentry. Of course, the agreement they had reached – and signed and sealed – would see Temple all but destitute in the long run, but that was the nature of competitive commerce. It was hardly Webb’s fault that Temple had not noticed the devious caveat in the contract before putting pen to paper.
The merchant’s ugly, coarse-featured face creased into a scowl as he recalled the reactions of some Company members when he and Temple had announced their alliance. The loud-mouthed Surgeon Wiseman had declared that he would have nothing to do with men involved in the heinous industry that used slave labour, and several others had bellowed their agreement. Wiseman’s medical colleague Thomas Lisle was among them, which was a blow, because Lisle was popular and reasonable, and men tended to listen to him.
Not everyone had taken the surgeons’ side, though: some had had the sense to see that sugar was needed in London, that the plantations required a workforce, and that slaves were the cheapest way to provide it. The wealthy Brandenburger, Johan Behn, had attempted to explain the economics of the situation, but most members were too drunk to understand his complex analysis, and had cheered when Wiseman, in his arrogant, dogmatic manner, had declared Behn a mean-spirited bore.
Then Temple had stood and raised his hand for silence. If people wanted affordable sugar, he had said crisply, they would have to put squeamish sentiments aside. Even Wiseman could think of no argument to refute that basic truth. Unfortunately, a foppish, debauched courtier called Sir Alan Brodrick had spoiled the victory by ‘accidentally’ hitting Temple over the head with a candlestick. Debates at Guinea Company gatherings often ended in spats – or even duels – and members were used to a little blood. Their guests were not, however, and Webb recalled the shock on the face of the Earl of Bristol at the way the disagreement had been resolved.
Webb turned into Paternoster Row, swearing viciously as wind blew a soggy veil of rain straight into his eyes. A cat hissed at him as he passed, and in the distance he could hear the cries of bellmen, announcing that all was well. Webb grimaced. All was not well. He had never met the Earl of Bristol before, and he had been delighted when the man had accepted the Company’s invitation to its annual dinner. Being low-born – Webb had started life as a ditcher – it was not easy to break into the exclusive circles of the privileged, not even for those who had become extremely rich. However, Bristol, who had no money of his own, had a reputation for socialising with anyone he thought might lend him some. Webb had cash to spare, and saw the impecunious Earl as his route to the respectability and acceptance he craved. He had intended to befriend Bristol that night, and the acquaintance would open doors that had hitherto been closed to him.
Webb had spent an hour hovering at the edge of the bright throng that surrounded Bristol, waiting for an opportunity to make his move. Unfortunately, he had made the mistake of taking his wife with him, and Silence Webb had heard some of the things the witty but spiteful Bristol had said. She had found them amusing and laughed with the rest, until he had made the quip about the decorative ‘face patches’ that were all the rage at Court. Every lady of fashion stuck one or two false moles to her cheeks, and Silence, eager to prove herself as cultured as the rest, had managed to glue fourteen of them around her ample visage. Because of this, Bristol’s casual remark that an excess made their wearers look like victims of the French pox had been taken personally. Proving to the entire Guinea Company that her Puritan name had been sadly misapplied, Silence had forced her way through the crowd and placed two meaty hands on Bristol’s table, leaning forward to glare at him.
‘I do not like you,’ she had said loudly, stilling the frivolous chatter that bubbled around the man. ‘I prefer your rival, Lord Clarendon, because he is a man of taste and elegance.’
It was not every day an Earl was harangued by an ex-ditcher’s wife, and for once Bristol’s famous wit failed to provide him with a suitably eloquent response. ‘Madam, I…’ he had stammered.
‘You are fat, and your doublet is twenty years out of date,’ Silence had continued in a ringing voice, so her words carried the length of the hall. People began to turn around to see what was happening. ‘And you stink of onions, like a peasant.’
‘Well, there you have it, Bristol,’ drawled the dissipated Brodrick. He was Lord Clarendon’s cousin, so always ready for a chance to snipe at his kinsman’s deadliest enemy. ‘Clarendon never smells of onions, so, he has the advantage of you in this dreadfully serious accusation.’
People had tittered uneasily, and Webb had taken the opportunity to haul Silence away before she could say anything else. Bristol had not smiled, though, and Webb knew he was angry. The merchant stopped for a moment, to shake water out of his hat; under the thin soles of his expensive shoes the road felt gritty with wet soot and ashes. Yet perhaps all was not lost. He had already lent Bristol several hundred pounds through a broker, so they were not exactly strangers to each other. He would call on the Earl the following morning, to apologise for Silence’s comments, and at the same time offer to lend him more – at a rate of interest that would be irresistible. Gold would speak louder than the insults of imprudent wives, and Bristol was sure to overlook the matter. He and Webb would be friends yet.
Webb took a series of shortcuts – he had been born in the slums known as the Fleet Rookery, and knew the city like the back of his hand – and emerged near Ludgate. His fine shoes rubbed his soaked feet, and he began to swear aloud, waking the beggars who were asleep under the Fleet bridge. His knees ached, too, as they often did in wet weather – a legacy of his years in the city’s dank runnels. He thought about Silence, and wondered whether she was angry with him because of Bristol’s remarks. Was that why she had failed to send the carriage back to African House to collect him?
He reached The Strand, limping heavily now, and heard the bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields announce six o’clock; they had been wrong ever since a new-fangled chiming mechanism had been installed three months before. He heaved a sigh of relief when he recognised mighty Somerset House and its fabulous clusters of chimneys. The newly styled ‘Webb Hall’ was next door.
Suddenly, a figure loomed out of the darkness ahead and began to stride towards him. Although he could not have said why, Webb knew, with every fibre of his being, that the man meant him harm. With a sick, lurching fear, he glanced at the alley that led to the river. Should he try to make a run for it? But his ruined knees ached viciously, and he knew he could not move fast enough to escape a younger, more fleet-footed man. He fumbled for his purse.
‘Five shillings,’ he said unsteadily. ‘I do not have any more. Take it and be gone.’
The fellow did not reply. Then Webb heard a sound behind him, and whipped around to see that a second man had been hiding in the shadows. And were there others, too? Webb screwed up his eyes, desperately peering into the blackness, but he could not tell. There was a blur of movement, and the merchant felt a searing pain in his chest. He dropped heavily to all fours, not knowing whether the agony in his ribs or to his jarred, swollen knees was the greater. He was still undecided when he died.
The killer handed his rapier to his companion to hold, while he knelt to feel for a life-beat. Then a dog started to bark, and the men quickly melted away into the darkness before the animal’s frenzied yaps raised the alarm. There was no time to snatch Webb’s bulging purse or investigate the fine rings clustered on his fat fingers.
The mongrel was not the only witness to the crime. A figure swathed in a heavy cloak watched the entire episode, then stood rubbing his chin thoughtfully. There was little he could have done to prevent the murder of Matthew Webb, but that did not mean it was going to be quietly forgotten. Someone would pay for the blood that stained The Strand.