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Fiction

Extract from Sword and Song

Chapter One

Every time I come to England, I am struck by the dens of iniquity that exist in the dark corner of the cities. [Letter from Refit de Vincennes, to his brother Georges, 10 August 1736]

"Three shirts at least," Hugh said, gulping down his beer. The din in the tavern was so loud he had to shout.

"I don't have three shirts," I shouted back.

"Devil take it, Charles, you musician fellows don't know how to dress!"

"And you dancing master fellows are damn peacocks."

He grinned. My friend Hugh Demsey likes his clothes and, unlike me, has enough money to indulge himself. Tonight, he was dressed in his best coat of turquoise blue, with a paler waistcoat and a cravat so white it must be brand new. Even at the end of the day, he looked neat and fresh. The clothes, and his black hair - he hates the itch of wigs as much as I do -
always attract attention from the ladies.

"I've been to these country houses," he said, signalling to a serving girl for more beer. "The gentry wear a different suit of clothes every day. If you take one shirt and one coat, you'll feel like - like - "

"A tradesman? That's what I am, Hugh. I'm not going to this summer party as a guest - I'm going to work, to entertain the ladies and gentlemen."

"Make them see you as something more than a tradesman!"

I laughed. "How?"

He looked at me, began to speak, closed his mouth again, breathed heavily. "Marry the lady," he said in a rush, as if he knew he'd regret it.

"No," I said forcibly.

The lady he referred to is wealthy and of impeccable family, much too good for a lowly musician. And with the added disadvantage, in the eyes of the world, of being - at 39 years of age - twelve years my senior.

"I'll wager you ten guineas you'll name the day before the end of the year," Hugh said.

"I will not."

"I've a feeling it's not up to you, Charles." He tossed the serving girl a few coins. "The lady's pretty determined."

It was then that the message came. Something gleaming slid along the wall to my right. A spirit. I tried not to flinch. Spirits cluster in alleys and streets and houses, on doors and window-frames and roofs, each tied to the place the living man or woman died. Three days after death the spirit disembodies, and they form a network we living men can only guess at. We see them when they choose to let us see; they speak when they wish and not otherwise. If they want to cause trouble then it's difficult to prevent them; I've had recent experience of the havoc they can wreak. But this spirit seemed innocent enough; it was drunk - spirits in taverns tend to be - but it made sense enough.

"Message for Mr Patterson. One of you two gents, is it?"

"I'm Charles Patterson," I agreed.

"Message from the constable, sir. He wonders if you'll come down to the lanes by the Castle. To Mrs McDonald's in Walker's Wynd. Third house from the Black Gate. It's urgent, he says."

Hugh groaned. "Involves a dead body, does it?"

"Didn't say anything about that, sir. Just said it was urgent. Can I send a message back to say you're on your way?" Spirits can send messages from one end of the town to the other in less time than it takes for a living man to speak them.

"Do you want to go?" Hugh asked. "It's gone midnight. Aren't you leaving town early tomorrow?"

I shook my head. "The carriage is coming for me at midday. If Bedwalters is asking for my advice, he must be worried. He usually advises me to keep clear of these matters."

I'm a musician by trade and inclination but ten months ago now, last November, I was involved by chance in the machinations of a villain that led on to murder, and since that time two more such affairs have come my way. I seem to have a knack of unravelling crimes, of working out what happened, and finding the guilty party. I admit I like the feeling that I can mete out justice where others fail. Bedwalters the constable has inevitably been involved in these matters too and has had cause to be annoyed at my interference. But he's a decent fair man and I like him very much.

Hugh fell into step beside me as we went to the tavern door.

"Handkerchiefs?" he asked.

"Half a dozen."

"Neckcloths?"

"Another half-dozen."

"Stockings?"

"And that's another thing," I said. "Why the devil should such things cost so much?"

The night was cold; we hesitated on the doorstep of the tavern looking left and right. A few sailors were still about, and two apprentices walked on the other side of the road earnestly debating the appearance of the latest comet. Most of the lanterns in the street had burnt themselves out, or were guttering.

"I wish you wouldn't get involved in these things, Charles," Hugh said as we walked down towards the castle. "It's dangerous."

"It pays better than music," I retorted. So far I'd made sixty pounds from the affairs in which I'd been involved, more than my usual annual income.

The bulk of St Nicholas's church was black against the starlit August sky - a full moon was rising high above the mass of narrow lanes beyond Amen Corner. Over all, loomed the castle's Black Gate.

"Sword?" Hugh asked.

"How can I afford a sword?" I protested. "I've been looking for a good cheap cane."

"I mean," Hugh said. "Are you by any chance totally unarmed?"

Belatedly, I saw why he asked. At the mouth of the alley leading up to the Black Gate, a pair of sullen lads were lounging against a wall, hands in pockets. One was smiling, unpleasantly.

"I'm unarmed," I admitted.

Hugh dragged his hands out of his pockets and showed me the dark gleam of a pistol. "I was teaching in the country today, and thought I might have to ride back to town in the dark."

"For God's sake, put that away! They'll attack us just to steal it."

The lads let us pass, although they eyed Hugh's fine clothes. This is the poorest end of the town, where thieves and thugs congregate, with probably not a penny between them. Hugh's clothes must represent a year's gin to anyone with enough daring. And they all clan up against outsiders, so if Bedwalters had a dead body in here, the chances of finding the killer were almost certainly remote.

The Black Gate obstructed the street ahead, ancient grimy stones topped with crenellations and pierced by tiny arrow slits. It was a long time since any warrior had defended this gatehouse and the stones were crumbling. We walked through the archway into another street and looked left and right for Mrs McDonald's. No torches here and in the darkness all the houses looked much the same.

A young girl darted out of a door. "Mr Patterson?" She was no more than ten years old and dressed up in so many ribbons and flounces it was difficult to see her figure. Rouge disfigured her face. I began to feel uneasy.

Hugh frowned. "Doesn't Bedwalters" inamorata live somewhere near here?"

Bedwalters the constable is a respectable man, running a respectable writing-school and enduring a respectable marriage to a respectable woman who doesn't know what it means to be civil. And in the meantime, he conducts a liaison with a girl of the streets whom he patently adores, and who quietly heals all his worries and cares.

I've met her several times, a girl of eighteen or so, dressed in poor clothes but clean and tidy, her brown hair tied back simply. She plies her trade without complaining, accepting what is and what cannot be with equal stoicism. She once defended Bedwalters to me, passionately. A good man, she called him. Well, no one condemns a man for straying from home, especially not a man with so shrewish a wife.

The door was low enough to make both Hugh and I duck; we found ourselves in a bare ugly hallway, hung with badly-framed engravings almost too embarrassing to look at. From upstairs came the sounds of several couples enjoying sexual congress; a murmur of voices filtered from the first room inside the house, immediately on the right.

The girl gestured to the half-open door. "Mrs Macdonald's in here." I glimpsed the back of a gaudily-dressed woman. I pushed open the door.

Bedwalters sat by the side of a low bed; the straw mattress was torn and leaking, and topped by blankets stained by unimaginable activity. He was a man both feared and adored by his pupils, and so respected that the Vestry of All Hallows elected him constable year after year; he was known for his quiet and his calm, his decent demeanour. Now his middle-aged face was white as ice, his wig awry on his bald head, his clothes thrown on anyhow and mis-buttoned. He was staring into mid-air, like a man for whom the world is so painful, it can only be ignored.

The woman glanced round, said in a broad Scotch accent: "Oh, thank goodness. Mr Patterson, is it? Pray sir, you do something with him for I can't."

I moved towards Bedwalters, hearing Hugh swear behind me. The constable was plainly not aware of my presence. His left hand clutched the hand of the girl who lay on the bed, staring at him with empty unseeing eyes. The girl Bedwalters so loved, who'd once told me she would do anything to protect him. A thin girl with dulled brown hair, dressed only in a thin shift.

A shift soiled by a browning stain of blood.









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