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?
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.