Never been on this kind of roll before, truth be told. Some months back, after I’d first written a Shakespearian noir story for NEEDLE magazine, I started a the novel, but quickly abandoned it, not happy with the start and having no idea of its direction. I was so displeased that I actually deleted the file, sort of like Cortez burning his ships on the beach to ensure he could not retreat.
Then, just this past Saturday, revisions on my last novel finally complete, I sat down to take another crack at the Bard, in truth, not very optimistic about my prospects. And here I am, not a week later, 25,000 words in, fairly sure of my direction, and pleased with what I’ve got in the can.
Anyway, with the weekend coming up, weekends not being much for blog traffic and anticipating that I will have other things to do than post, but having made the promise to post a chapter a day so long as I could manage it, and having at this point several chapters in the can ahead of what I have so far shared, I figured what the hell, get the Saturday and Sunday chunks out now. I’ll see you all again come Monday.
New to the game? You can read the previous chapters right here. Got a comment or question? Let me have it. And, if you’re enjoying the tale, then invite a friend or pimp me out on Twitter or Facebook or the social media platform of your choosing. Don’t worry, I’m not shy.
And so I offer Chapters 6 and 7 of ROTTEN AT THE HEART.
“Oh look, mother,” said John Carey, the late Lord Chamberlain’s second son as they both entered that room to which I had been ushered upon presenting myself for that day’s appointment, “our dear brother’s hired scribe, the newly minted gentleman, and in costume, no doubt so as to impress us with his reputation as a player as well, should George also need such services to portray father in this glorious homage, although even given the late Lord’s not overly noble manner, I think I still find this Shakespeare’s dress lacking.”
I had again borrowed such costume as I could from the theater’s stores, but could not even approximate in fashion the younger Carey’s array, not that of his mother, who, though some aged, also was richly attired. On their entrance, I made such courtesies as required by our relative stations, but he crossed the room seeming ignoring my presence to a couch that bordered the large windows, which gave out onto the expansive gardens behind the building. Somerset House was first the mansion of the late Duke of Somerset, but upon his leaving his head on a scaffold at the Tower, had passed into possession of the Crown and had been palace to Elizabeth in those years she was princess before her ascendency, its rich expanse now serving home to some close members of her court, including the late Lord Chamberlain’s family.
The younger Lord Carey sprawled unto the couch in an insouciant manner. “I’ll not ask you sit, Shakespeare, as I frankly find your errand tiresome and humor you only out of love to my good brother, who, as first born, has better reason than I to have loved our father well,” Carey waved his hand in a foppish manner as to make the point that Somerset, having been his father’s residence, would now be his brother’s, and that he would continue here only at his brother’s leave. “I would hope that standing might weary you, but I do suppose your custom of long hours on stage making speech will have trained you such that you will tire our ears before we can hope to tire your legs.”
“I do beg your leave for this intrusion, my Lord,” I said. “I, too, am here at some reluctance and only at your brother’s charge, but having loved your father well for his long and good patronage of our Company, I do hold your brother’s commission to draft such work as will do him honor most dear and will approach it with my diligence. I shall impose for no minute longer than I have need.”
“By your meandering speech, I suppose I shall count those minutes dear, but I will relay to my brother your reluctance at his employ,” Carey said. “So, the illustrious truths of our late Lord. As even such trite entertainments as your kind do author must require a beginning, shall we start at his birth, as it is rumored my good father is the sire not of his own name but of no lesser person than our Good Henry, late king, making him not only the Queen’s dear cousin, but in truth half her brother, and me, I fear, a distant nephew entitled by the misfortune of my later birth only to such scraps as might fall from such tables as may.”
“My son forgets both himself and his manners,” said Lady Carey, though not sharply, “though I am inclined to forgive his manners, as they are suspect even amongst our peers, and so I would not have him waste what good form he might manage in our current company. The Late Lord’s name was Carey, as was his father’s, and any thought otherwise is not your concern. Should you think to make some wit of it on stage or in rumor, my ears have such reach as are likely to hear, and as I do hold dear our reputation, I would devote my attentions to your misfortune.”
“My mother, being Lady Carey, thinks much on the reputations that do titles hold,” the younger Carey added, “but for me, of Baron Carey, the name Baron held the more weight, and as that, too, did pass to my brother, I shall let what reputation does to it attach count as his concern.” He spread both arms wide in a kind of flourish. “And I am thus gratefully unburdened with such cares.”
He had that sense of self and natural style that, were he of some other station, I would make offer to add him player to our company, as in almost every work we require some evil foil to serve as counterweight to the hero of the play, these villains oft the favorites of the audience, as there is a kind of freedom that I think all do envy in the abandonment of pretense to any social good or norm, having given over entirely to the pursuit of one’s own appetites. The younger Carey was hunger and greed entire and none else, but wrapped well in style and costume.
I bowed. “I will author naught concerning the late Lord except that which will reflect on him honor, my Lady, as this is both my charge and my opinion.”
“Then he shall in such play be only Baron Carey, if not,” the last softly, “Earl.”
Her son sat forward on the couch, his face a malevolent mischief. “Oh, yes, you must include that. When in his late illness our father was offered by the good Queen to be made Earl, he did respond that, as she had not seen fit to grant such honor in life, he could not in right accept it in death, evidently desirous to gain whatever legend such selfless act might lend to his dead honor rather than to gain such lands, incomes and benefits as it would lend to the future comfort of his family. Is not this just the sort of preening nobility that will best please both my brother and your audience?”
“I shall make good note of the late Lord’s grace in this instance, as it is admirable,” I said.
“Oh, much admirable, for I, too, can now admire from some distance such estates as I might have enjoyed and such additional incomes as with which we could put paid to the claims of the various bastard children that do seem to grow in the dark shadow of my later father’s appetites like summer mushrooms, his estate now open to their claims and their own appetites whetted by his imagined fortune, which, in truth numbers scarce greater than his debts.” He sank back into the cushions of his seating. “Of course we also have his patronage of players and other such leeches as he entertained to contain us in such poverty that does our humility ensure, which, no doubt, was his righteous intent, as we would never dream that he be such a poor steward of his considerable affairs as to purposely have left us so.”
Lady Carey again interrupted. “Such estate as there may be is the province of my elder son, so I do hope you will ignore speculation concerning it particulars coming from those ignorant of its contents. The late Lord was much beloved of the Queen even in his youth. In the late northern rising where such Papists as did hope support from abroad rebelled against her rightful office, she placed him head of her armies, with he did command with much nerve and skill, securing her kingdom, her kingdom and her constant future favor, which was much expressed in his later appointments. Beyond which, I can think of little that would offer such drama as would be worth your ink.” By which speech she had meant, I think, my dismissal.
“If I may further beg your leave,” I said, “You did say that the Queen offered him made Earl in his final illness, but I had thought his death sudden from your elder son’s remarks.”
“He had these last weeks suffered what the doctors credited as some corruption of his lungs and seemed most near his death, at which time the Queen did make such offer as he did refuse, but he did for some few days rally before such pestilence as had previous plagued him returned anew and fiercely, and did claim him in short hours,” she said.
“In which hours his brave honor fled him,” said the younger Carey, “and poxed about the mouth and hands robbed his speech, and he instead cried womanly tears as if his bedskirts were his daily and not his nightly attire. Would that the Queen had offered him Earl then, when he did not have voice to refuse.”
A pox on his hands, I noted, as in the elder Carey’s dreams.
“I should think the world glad that your kind have the theater for your craft, lest you put your minds in earnest to such dark ends as you too oft put them in fiction,” the apothecary said, his tankard again empty and raised to signal for yet another fill. I had before taken his advice on matters of poison as I considered such agencies that my characters might use in their less-noble goals, and in the guise of such consultancy did again ask his company at a tavern of his frequent betwixt Somerset and Bishopsgate.
“I believe you glad there be a theater because what coin I earn at its art so oft doth fill your cup,” I replied.
“You would begrudge a man the cost of his service?” he asked.
“Methinks I could better afford your actual wares than such ale as needed to lubricate your tongue.”
“Alas, mine is a solitary profession and I do spend long hours alone with my potions, and so my tongue doth rust from lack of custom and requires much balm before it can reclaim its art.”
I laughed at the old man, who, though gaunt and homely in his aspect such that one would imagine his manner drear was in fact good company.
“And I take it from your speech you have your faculties recovered?”
His tankard replished, he held up a finger, and drew half of it in a long draught. “Just now. So, what vile scheme can I help concoct?”
I leaned forward, the tavern loud and no ear seeming turned to our speaking, but wanting still such privacy as could be possible. “I have a character, who did for some weeks suffer an ailment of the lungs which did greatly trouble his breathing such that he was feared soon dead, but from which he was seeming recovered. Then the pestilence did sudden return, marking his mouth and hands with pox, stealing his voice, and making such pain that he did for those brief hours before his death cry as if a woman. And I need know if this follow the course of some known disease and his death be of nature, or if it more closely mark some poison, and thus mean him murdered.”
The apothecary paused, his tankard half to his mouth, and looked at me from beneath the tangle of white hair that o’re framed his eyes. “And pray tell, Will, how is it that you must ask me what ill has befallen some character that you yourself have created? They live and die at your hand and at your pleasure and by what agency you decide.”
In my thirst to divine the method of the Lord Carey’s demise, I had poorly consider the logic of my question, and did now need quick to offer some dramatic device to explain my lapse, less the apothecary, who be no fool, ask further into my affairs. And the master I now did serve was most jealous of my confidence.
“There’s the rub. I wish in this play for the manner of this character’s death to be mysterious, for he is a man of some station and with not few enemies, so that his fellows do have to puzzle out the nature of his passing, unsure even if it be murder. And so I imagined such scene as I have described. I did think the loss of speech convenient so that, should some evil aim be true and even if he knows its actor, he cannot speak his name. I have only yet started, and before proceeding further, did want your good console so that the direction that the story may pursue does not ring false in its nature.”
The apothecary sat back and drew again from his tankard, the cup sounding near empty when set back again to table, but the apothecary not yet holding it up as was his habit, such troubles as might have framed his first question seeming only half stilled by my reponse.
“And the pox, Will? What of that?”
And I laughed and waved my hand as if the pox were a pittance and said, “Oh, the pox. That can go or stay as best fits, but the crowds do love some grotesque display, and their fear of plague is such that a good pox doth much discomfit them, and so I do like to use a pox as I can.”
The apothecary shook his head with a soft laugh and drained what small drops remained in his cup, holding it up again to be filled. “The cruel nature of your wiles much amuses me, Will, on those occasions when I am blessed with the secrets of their devising.” The maid again filled his cup and took my coin. “So, to your case. For his initial distress to proceed over some weeks, methinks it be some natural sickness, for such poisons that are in common employ do generally work with much haste, although one skilled in the art could, I suppose, deliver such doses so small and gradual in their malady that they would mimic the natural decay of illness. But they would need daily commerce with your victim. No – and here you can use your beloved pox to great effect – should this man have been near death with such ailment as did trouble the lungs and be only just begun recover, just little of such poisons as do the lungs affect would of ease kill him. With only some little art, those who did wish him harm could grind any of the common flowers such as are used as banes – Lakespur, Monk’s Shade, some others – and by secreting the grindings in his supper achieve such end as you have described, as his hands would blister short after having touched the poisoned food, and his mouth from its eating, his throat and tongue inflame as well, even to the point of stopping his speech, and even a strong man would weep, as, until such time as the agent did finally still his lungs, the feeling would be much like being burned away from the inside to the out.”
And so the late Lord Chamberlain had been murdered, and the details of both sons’ accounts, the elder from his dreams and the younger in his hateful recollection did seeming point to the same cause.
“These flowers? They are common to England?”
“Much common and favored in many gardens. As so often with nature’s most deadly treats, they are bright in their ornament and appealing to the eye, as if to seduce us into their acquaintance. I have oft wondered why God hath ordained it so, for it seems a cruel irony to make what would bring the eye such joy bring the body such harm.”
My mind ran to Somerset House, the younger Cary sprawled on his couch, the windows behind him and the large and varied garden beyond.
And also to the man with the bulbous and disfigured nose who, while the apothecary and I did talk, sat alone at the table nearest the door, whose glance passed regular around the tavern and settled, it seemed on any but me.