Chapter one: Terror
‘If you don’t reduce your pace, I shall have an attack of the spleen, madam,’ shrieked the Countess at her maid, Alpiew, who was running a good twenty yards ahead.‘But the girl’s heading for the Tower,’ Alpiew called back to her panting mistress. ‘If I slow down, we’ll lose her.’ Alpiew hitched up her skirts and prepared to speed up. ‘You wait inside the gate, I’ll give chase.’Taking a great puff as Alpiew raced ahead, Anastasia, Lady Ashby de la Zouche, Countess of Clapham, Baroness Penge, reduced her stride to a very gentle trot. How had it come to this? At her age and station she should be sitting at home being served hot chocolate and biscuits while reading some juicy scandalous broadsheet. Instead she was near penury, forced into working for a living, chasing after scandal all over London to provide the tittle-tattle for other ladies to read while lounging in their cosy homes, gulping down buckets of best bohea tea.With a sigh she trotted across the meadow of Tower Hill. High above her, on top of the slope, loomed the awful spectre of the scaffold and gallows. Luckily today was not an execution day, or she’d not be able to move for the crowds. The day before, however, had been one, so the place was still spattered with litter. The Countess side-stepped a pile of oyster shells crawling with maggots before joining the queue for the Tower of London .
This morning she and Alpiew were after a wayward girl. Miss Phoebe Gymcrack, only daughter of a City alderman, Sir John Gymcrack, fancied to raise herself out of the ranks of the City into the Court. The only trouble was, though she had told all and sundry of her plans to snare a rich lord, she had not bothered to drop his name into the conversation. This had to be wormed out or the story was no story at all.
The Countess pondered as she strolled along beside the wooden paling fence. Then she stepped briskly through the stone building known as the Lion Gate. With this story written up and waiting for delivery to Mr and Mrs Cue (printers of the London Trumpet and her employers), she and Alpiew could happily take the rest of the week off.
Miss Gymcrack had been dancing at a masquerade till midnight . The Countess knew this because she had also been there, watching to see if the potential lordly stepping stone discovered himself. But the girl had never danced twice with the same fellow, and from her demeanour it was clear that Mr, or rather, Lord Right was not even at the function.
When the girl rolled home in the early hours, Alpiew took over for the night-watch outside the alderman’s City home. Mayhap the rake would come serenading at her window. But no. Alpiew had spent a fruitless and uncomfortable night curled up in a doorway for nothing.
At first light the Countess was preparing to leave her home in German Street , St James’s, to bring Alpiew some food and to take over the watch. She had just popped upstairs to search out an old bag that she had left in one of the derelict upper rooms of her house when there was a thundering at the door. She peered down over the banister to see two bailiffs making their way through to the kitchen. One of them was waving a debt order in his hand.
The Countess had no interest is finding out how much the debt order was for, as she knew she didn’t have any cash to spare at the moment. So she darted down the stairs and out into the street. Scurrying across the quiet road, she entered the church of St James’s, exiting into Pickadilly, which (luckily) at this time of day was quite a commotion of wagons, as well as flocks of geese and sheep being driven to market. Thence she took a route involving as many bustling streets and markets as she could, making sure she blended into the crowd until she had lost the burly bailiffs.
At the very moment the Countess caught sight of Alpiew standing in the shop doorway, the Gymcrack girl appeared at her front door, wrapped in a great cloak and hood, and strode out. She had a furtive look on her face, and it was clear that the object of their interest would shortly be at hand.
Through the City they had given chase. The Gymcrack girl marched proudly along in front, with Alpiew loping behind and the Countess in her wake, rapidly getting left behind.
The Countess had expected her to roll up to some City mansion, but was surprised by this destination. The Tower of London ! This turn-up presented only two possibilities: the favoured lord was using the place for an assignation among the crowd, or (and if this were true – what a story!) he was imprisoned within.
The Countess marched on, passing a large wooden hoarding painted with a likeness of a lion, or rather a likeness of a man in a lion costume, which announced, ‘Within: lions, a leopard, eagles, owls, a two-legged dog, a cat-a-mountain, and a hyena with the voice of a man.’
A Yeoman Warder stood just inside the gate, taking entrance fees. The Countess plunged her hand deep into her pocket, hoping she had the required pennies somewhere about her person. She paid and, looking over her shoulder to check that no bailiff was behind her, entered the Tower.
The Countess shoved her way through the peering folk enjoying their morning excursion, and stood on tiptoe trying to locate Alpiew. She must already be across the moat. Gritting her teeth, the Countess trotted over the bridge. She crossed her fingers – Please let Miss Gymcrack come up trumps and provide them with a juicy story. She took a deep breath and instantly regretted it. In the April sunshine the moat-water lapped pleasingly against the grey stone of the outer wall, but it exuded a rank and stagnant stink.
At the Byward Tower a parcel of Warders stood chatting under a huge iron portcullis. The Countess suppressed a smile. For all their pomposity, in those silly blood red-costumes with ribbons and braids and fancy velvet hats they resembled nothing more than a group of Morris dancers up from the country for the May Fair.
‘Whither goest thou?’ A Gentleman Yeoman barred her way with a long halberd. The blade sparkled ominously in the sunlight.
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