Thomas Chaloner’s Fourth Exploit in Restoration London
Christmas in London in 1663 is very different from the austere celebrations during the rule of Cromwell in the Commonwealth …
Of course, many disapprove of the relaxed revelries, including a Treasury clerk respected for his diligence and probity. On Christmas Day, he works in solitary piety in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster. But he is not truly alone. A killer waits in the draughty hall to ensure that he will not live to see the end of the month.
The clerk is not the only government official to die that season, and in the malicious atmosphere of White Hall, the Lord Chancellor fears his enemies will use the investigation into the murders to do him harm. He decides to commission his own inquiries and orders his intelligencer Thomas Chaloner to prove that another clerk, a man named Greene, is the culprit.
Chaloner, though, can prove otherwise, but unravelling the reasons behind his employer’s suspicions is as complex as discovering the motives for the killings. His search for the real murderer plunges him into a stinking seam of corruption, where the pickings are so rich that men are prepared to go to any lengths to protect their profits: corruption that leads towards the royal apartments, and to people determined to make Christmas 1663 Chaloner’s last.
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The Westminster Poisoner 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.
Westminster, Christmas Day 1663
The Palace of Westminster was an eerie place after dark. It was full of medieval carvings that gazed down from unexpected places, and when the street-lamps swayed in the wind, it made some of the statues look as though they were moving. The killer was sure he had just seen Edward the Confessor reach for his sword, while a few moments before he had been equally certain that a gargoyle had winked at him. He took a deep breath and tried to pull himself together, increasing his stride so he could complete his business and go home. It was no night to be out anyway, with a fierce storm blowing in from the east, carrying with it needles of rain that hurt when they hit bare skin.
He walked towards the building called the Painted Chamber, which was a long, draughty hall hung with tapestries so old that they were grey with dust. Ancient kings had once used it to receive important guests; nowadays it was where the two Houses of Parliament met when they needed to confer. However, as Commons and Lords rarely had much to say to each other, a few high-ranking government officials had taken it over. Desks were placed at irregular intervals along its length, while around its edges were chests full of documents, writs and books.
The Painted Chamber was empty now, of course, because it was eight o’clock on Christmas night, and the clerks had gone home early, eager to gorge themselves on rich seasonal foods, sing carols and enjoy visits from friends and family. Cromwell’s Puritans had done their best to curb the revelries associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas, but December was a dark, cold, dreary month, and people needed something to cheer them up – the Puritans’ efforts had never had gained much support, and the Restoration had seen the festival revived in all its pagan glory. Christmas was more popular now than it had ever been.
The killer nodded to himself when he opened the Painted Chamber’s door and saw a lamp gleaming at the far end. Well, most clerks had gone home early: James Chetwynd was still at his desk, chin resting on his left hand while he wrote with his right. The killer did not blame him – Chetwynd’s kin were quite open about the fact that they cared nothing for him, and that they hoped he would die so they could inherit his money; he would have to be insane to want to spend Christmas with them. The killer took a deep breath, and supposed they were going to be rich sooner than they had anticipated, because tonight was going to be Chetwynd’s last on Earth.
He advanced stealthily. Chetwynd was engrossed in his papers, so certain he was safe inside the great hall that he did not once look up. The killer wondered if the clerk preferred the stillness of evening to the commotion of daylight hours – if he was able to think more clearly when there were no distractions. Regardless, the killer was glad he was there, because what better place for a murder than a deserted room in a palace that had been all-but abandoned for the night? It afforded both privacy and space, allowing him to take his time and ensure he left no clues behind him. His smug musings meant he did not concentrate on where he was going, and he stumbled over a loose floorboard, a sound that made Chetwynd’s head jerk up in surprise.
‘Is anyone there?’ the clerk called, peering into the darkness beyond the halo of light around his desk. ‘Show yourself!’
There was no fear in his voice – he assumed anyone entering the Painted Chamber would be a friend, and did not for a moment imagine he might be in danger. The killer did not reply. He waited until Chetwynd’s attention drifted back to his documents, and then he made his move.
Thomas Chaloner’s Third Exploit in Restoration London
Decadence and deceit in Restoration London.
The summer of 1663 in London was chill and wet, a bleak contrast to the sun of Portugal and Spain, from where Thomas Chaloner has just returned. He finds that much has changed during his four months’ absence. A tax on printed newssheets has led to a plethora of handwritten pamphlets, and the coffee houses are abuzz with the rivalry between the two main producers – and with the hypocritical activities of Roger l’Estrange, a man appointed to censor the news, but who also profits by its dissemination.
Then, to his deep sorrow, Chaloner learns that his friend Thomas Maylord is dead, reputedly from eating green cucumbers. However, he has to put his grief to one side while he reports to his employer, the Earl of Clarendon, who immediately gives him a new task: to investigate the strange death of one of l’Estrange’s lackeys, a solicitor named Newburne, who died after partaking of some cucumber …
Eminent physicians might claim such food is dangerous, but Chaloner’s own experiences tells him that two such deaths within days of each other are no coincidence. Why should a sensitive musician and a shady solicitor have met such similar ends?
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The Butcher of Smithfield 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.
The solicitor Thomas Newburne knew he was not a popular man, but he did not care. Why should he, when he had everything he wanted – a lovely mansion on Old Jewry, a pleasant cottage on Thames Street, cellars stuffed with fine wines, and more gold than he could spend in a lifetime? He glanced at the man walking at his side. People liked Richard Hodgkinson, because he was affable and good-hearted, but had his printing business made him wealthy, allowed him to buy whatever he fancied and not worry about the cost? No, they had not, and Newburne could not help but despise him for it.
‘Let me buy you another pie, Hodgkinson,’ he said, making a show of rummaging in his loaded purse for coins. He was aware of several rough types eyeing him speculatively, but he was not afraid of them. He was legal adviser to the infamous Ellis Crisp, and only a fool would risk annoying the man everyone called the Butcher of Smithfield. Cutpurses and robbers could look all they liked, but none would dare lift a finger against the Butcher’s right-hand man.
‘I have had enough to eat, thank you,’ replied Hodgkinson politely. ‘It was good of you to invite me to spend a few hours with you.’
Newburne inclined his head in a bow. Of course Hodgkinson appreciated his hospitality. Newburne was the ascending star in Smithfield, and Hodgkinson should be grateful that the solicitor had deigned to acknowledge him, and spoil him with little treats.
It was a good day for a stroll – the first dry one they had had in weeks – and Newburne and Hodgkinson were not the only ones taking advantage of it. The Smithfield meat market was packed, a lively, noisy chaos of shops, taverns, stocks and brothels.
‘My stomach hurts,’ Newburne said, not for the first time during the outing. ‘You said gingerbread would soothe it, but I feel worse.’
Hodgkinson looked sympathetic. ‘You drank a lot of wine earlier, and I thought the cake might soak up some of the sour humours. Perhaps you should take a purge instead.’
Newburne waved the advice aside; the printer did not know what he was talking about. ‘I shall have a bit of this cucumber instead. They are said to be good for gripes in the belly, although I cannot abide the taste.’
‘They are unpleasant,’ agreed Hodgkinson. He pointed suddenly, and his voice dropped to a low, uneasy whisper. ‘There is the Butcher, out surveying his domain.’
Newburne glanced to where a man, hooded and cloaked, prowled among the market stalls. Even Crisp’s walk was menacing, light and soft, like a hunter with its prey, and people gave him a wide berth. He was surrounded by the louts who did his bidding, members of the powerful gang called the Hectors. They were another reason why no one tended to argue with the Butcher of Smithfield, and even Newburne was a little uneasy in their company, although he would never have admitted it to anyone else.
‘I heard he killed a man yesterday,’ he said to Hodgkinson. He smiled, despite the ache in his stomach. The Butcher knew how to keep people in line, and Newburne fully approved of his tactics. It was refreshing to work for someone who was not afraid to apply a firm hand when it was needed. ‘By that slaughterhouse over there.’
Hodgkinson swallowed uneasily. ‘I heard. Apparently, the fellow objected to the way he runs things. I suppose that explains why Crisp’s shop is so full of pies and sausages this morning.’
Newburne nodded, glancing across to where the emporium in question was curiously devoid of customers, although everywhere else was busy. He was never sure whether to believe the rumours that circulated regarding how Crisp disposed of his dead enemies. Most of Smithfield thought them to be true, though, which served to make the Butcher more feared than ever, and that was not a bad thing as far as Newburne was concerned. Frightened folk were easier to control than ones who were puffed up with a sense of their own independence.
Hodgkinson shuddered, and began to walk in another direction, away from the Butcher and his entourage. ‘Look! Dancing monkeys! I have not seen those in years.’
Newburne took a bite of the cucumber as he stood in the little crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. He was beginning to feel distinctly unwell, and thought he might be sick. He swallowed the mouthful with difficulty, and started to take another, but suddenly, there was a searing pain in his innards, one that felt like claws tearing him apart from the inside. He groaned and dropped to his knees, arms clutching his middle. He could hear Hodgkinson saying something, but could not make out the words. Then he was on his back, in the filth of the street.
People were looking away from the performing apes to stare at him, although no one made any attempt to help. Hodgkinson was shouting for someone to bring water, but all Newburne cared about was the terrible ache in his belly. He could not breathe, and his vision was darkening around the edges. And then everything went black, and the printer’s clamouring voice faded into silence.
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.
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.
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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.