Chapter 24


[New readers: to start at chapter 1, click Archives / November 2012 on right hand side]

Rose looked at Ludovic. She pushed a strand of hair back under her cap and bobbed in a half-curtsey again.

“I can show you the city Sir. If Mister Barry is not coming.” She looked past him at the empty space where the chair had been.

“We can look at the city first,” said Ludovic. “Then I will return and wait for Barry.” He looked behind at the boards on the mud. “How often does he come? How did you meet him?”

“At first he came often. Every week. Sometimes twice or three times. My mistress found him here. He was sheltering, he said. He had gold. He paid her each time he came.”

They heard footsteps outside. Ludovic looked around the cluttered room. “Do you have a cape? A cloak?” He asked. “My garments might be,” he hesitated, “too unusual.”

Her eyes flicked down to his feet and up again. “Wait,” she said and turned quickly to leave the room, the door ajar. A moment later she was back, holding a folded blanket. She held it out to him.

Ludovic took the blanket. It was heavy. The weave was coarse and the yarn was thick and rough. It looked more like sacking than anything else. He unfolded it and shook it briefly before draping it around his shoulders. Automatically he reached down, brought the two sides of his coat together and fastened the zip.

Rose stared at him. She reached out a hand and ran her finger along the line of the zip. Ludovic stepped back and pulled the cape together at his chest. Rose shook her head and turned to the door.

“It will be night soon. We shall walk quickly.”

They stepped out of the door. Ludovic almost gagged with the stench. The air was fetid with human effluence. Inches from his feet a small stream of sewage puddled and trickled through the mud. Woodsmoke and animal dung added to the thick odour. A thin drizzle was falling from the darkening sky visible between the overhanging buildings that almost met twenty feet above his head. As he stepped sideways to avoid the foul waste at his feet, his head brushed a hairy rope with shapeless laundry hanging fastened with carved wooden pegs. His off-white shoes sank ankle deep into the slime and cold water seeped into his socks.

Ludovic was captivated. He noted the joints in the woodwork of the doorway. He saw the geometry of the vertical posts holding up the wall of the building opposite. He saw that the spaces between the wooden beams were filled with hard brown mud and straw which poked out untidily. Looking left where the stream of sewage flowed slowly downhill he saw a rat scuttle across and a skinny dog turn to look. He heard crows cawing, footsteps splashing in the distance and someone shouting hoarsely out of sight.

Rose turned right and walking nimbly she picked her way around the puddles, keeping close to the wall of the overhanging building. He pulled his cloak tight and followed her clumsily. His wet feet splashing in the mud, ducking frequently to avoid protruding hooks and wooden bars. He felt a bit too tall and a bit too wide for the narrow street. There was only just room for two people to walk side by side.

They turned slightly to the right and looking up Ludovic could see that the street ended at a wider opening. Rose stopped at the corner and turned. He caught up with her and stopped alongside, looking out.

They were at the edge of a wide space. It was busy but not crowded. Looking in either direction Ludovic could see people walking, a few people leading horses and ten or twelve carts rumbling slowly in either direction. At either side of the street there were rows of ramshackle stalls, some roofed with drab canvas, but most just tables open to the elements.

Rose turned to him. “Most of the market is finished,” she said matter-of-factly. “If we had been earlier you would have seen all the birds that way,” she pointed to the right. “The poultry market is busy every day.”

Ludovic noticed a line of hairy red-brown pigs snuffling in the mud. Rose looked too and pointed. “That’s the Guildhall over there.” Black fan-tailed birds of prey wheeled over a long dark roof, smoke coiling from a thick chimney.

Ludovic turned to look in the opposite direction. At the end of the wide street, past a gilded cross on a pillar,  a huge building loomed soot-streaked and mossy, much taller than the houses around it. Through the drizzle Ludovic could see a wide, square tower rising from pointed windows and thick buttresses.

“That is Saint Paul’s Cathedral,” said Rose.

Ludovic’s stomach lurched. Until that moment he had not known what Professor Flatt had done, but he was prepared to believe it was an elaborate and mysterious hoax.

“We need to go back,” he said urgently. “We need to go back now.”

He turned back into the narrow alley and half-ran, down the gentle hill that he now knew led towards the river. He could hear Rose following, her feet slapping in the mud. As he reached the bend a man in a dark, wide-brimmed hat appeared walking in the opposite direction. He said something angrily as Ludovic brushed past him, splashing mud.

Round the corner, Ludovic slowed, uncertain where to stop. It was almost dark under the eaves. All the low doorways looked similar, small windows and ropes strung from hooks between them.

“Here,” Rose said suddenly, lifting the latch on one of the doors.

Together they stumbled back into the darkness. Rose stood on the threshold breathing heavily, both hands resting on her swollen belly.

“I’m sorry,” said Ludovic. “I must travel back. I need Barry to come. I shouldn’t be here.”

“Can you summon him?” Asked Rose.

Ludovic stood in the darkness. He pulled the gritty, rough blanket off his shoulders and loosened the zip on his coat.

“No,” he said softly. “I can’t summon him. He needs to be sent.”

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