Another young life lost.
Simon Danforth pictured the boy’s body, lying bloodless and cold on the wooden bench of the coroner’s office. Harry Alwin had been a few years younger than his own twenty-two. Even now, as he looked into Mr Richard Alwin’s face, he pictured it. It was somehow hard to connect the hard-faced, stony man, now deathly pale, with the hollow body of a once-wild London lad.
You did not have to come here, he thought. You should not have come here.
‘You were no friend to him,’ said Alwin, eyes narrowed.
‘I did not have that pleasure, no, sir,’ said Danforth. His hands were clasped before him.
‘Then who sent you?’
It was not who but what. He might have given his colleague in the coroner’s office, Mr Blunt, this task, and tramped the streets looking for witnesses and jurors. He had only volunteered because he could not face the excited chatter, part horrified and part delighted, about the other great murder that was about to take place.
And there was something else, a voice in his head persisted: you are become an urban brother to the Keres. He had taken to haunting the grief-stricken as though he might feed on kindred spirits.
‘No man sent me.’
‘Then why are you come?’
‘I assist the coroner.’ So suspicious an age. ‘I thought you should like to have his things.’ Without waiting for a response, Danforth stepped across the room to a fine oak sideboard. It was a good house. Harry had been a young man of gentlemanly stock. Reaching into his doublet, he produced a handful of cheap goods and set them down next to a bowl of dying flowers. A wooden spoon. A length of green ribbon. A fold of leather for keeping money – empty. And a dagger. Of course, a dagger, still flecked with blood. Harry Alwin had given some account of himself before he was pierced through the heart, the blade penetrating his body completely before being withdrawn.
Richard Alwin did not look at the things – so few, thought Danforth, to suggest a life. Instead, he stepped across the room and began jabbing at the fireplace with a poker, stirring up the choking smell and lightening the shuttered and gloomy room. It was a good fireplace, surmounted by a carving of the Alwin arms. It was a good home, full of good things, much like his own had once been. Now stripped bare, everything he owned – as meagre as Harry’s possessions – lay in a strongbox. This house too would be forever altered by the loss of its heir. Each floorboard would carry the weightless spirit of the boy who would never set foot on it again. Each doorway would frame an absence. Better these good folk leave, as he would soon be leaving.
‘I told him,’ said Alwin. The back of his shirt was still to Danforth. ‘Warned him, time and again. That it should come to this.’
‘What did you warn him of, sir?’
‘Already told the constable. Warned him against those friends. He … he was a good boy, my poor son. It was they were the rough brutes. Beasts. By Christ, only yesterday he was with us still.’
Danforth sipped a shallow breath before removing his coat, as much to show off his city livery as anything. A gamble. It either loosened tongues or tied them. ‘Might I sit, sir?’
‘Mm? Oh, yes, do.’
The need to be civil seemed to draw Alwin back. He took a cushioned seat opposite his guest, before dabbing at his eyes with the handkerchief wound round his hand. Clear liquid had collected at the tip of his nose. His eyes were veined with red. His son’s corpse had only been discovered, lying in a Milk Street gutter, the previous night.
Alwin opened his mouth to speak. Before he could, the sound of a woman’s weeping rose from the next room. It fell and was replaced by the piping of a child. Mrs Alwin had shepherded the younger son from the room on Danforth’s arrival, a protective arm around him, her face bruised- and swollen-looking. She had taken the news badly. Women had been known to die of such griefs. Probably the little boy was even now swearing vengeance.
It was unfair. The lady should only be plagued by everyday problems – rising prices and over-listening neighbours. Danforth’s mind turned, frustratingly, to his own wife and child, now in the grave. Death had intervened only a day after they too had been living in quietness. One day the world had been theirs: there had been some business about the man who sold fish, whom Alice Danforth had almost quarrelled with, and would it not be a fine thing to get out of London for a day and go into the fields? All had been well. And the next, the plague had swept London like a rapacious tide, and she was gone, and baby Margaret was gone.
Everyday problems had been sucked down the drain, foul-smelling bubbles gurgling up as memories. Into their place bigger problems had rushed.
‘Hush! Hush, woman. There is a man from the coroner here.’
Do not hush her, thought Danforth. Enjoy the sound of her. Odd fragments of Alice’s voice still repeated in his head, musical notes only his mind could play and hear. ‘But you said’: her way of making him keep his promises. ‘I suppose we couldn’t’: her way of trying to persuade him that they could. Time would quieten them too.
The weeping and the shrill voice of the younger boy stilled.
‘Do you, either of you, wish to see your boy’s body?’ Business would chase away the bitterness of memory.
‘No, I do not. Mr …’
‘Danforth, Simon Danforth.’
‘I wish for this grisly matter buried with Christian honour.’
‘That it will be. Yet first my master must empanel the jury, hold the inquest.’ The report looked like being a dull one. He had been instructed that no blame should attached to anyone in the king’s service. ‘Did your son have any enemies?’
‘I … he …’
‘I warned him! He wouldn’t obey though, would he? Boys.’ Finally, the armour began to break. ‘He was a good, fair boy, as a babe.’ Alwin’s head fell, and for the first time his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. ‘Then he began to get a few whiskers, to haunt the streets. Fell in with …’
‘With whom, Mr Alwin?’
‘Them. Ruffians. Lads. Roaming the streets, drinking. Fights. I said to him, I told him, get yourself a good place or get out from under this roof. A place – a place in Mr Secretary Cromwell’s household. He takes in lads, trains them. Maybe even one day he could be in the king’s service.’
‘The king,’ echoed Danforth. He could feel his lips tighten over his teeth. ‘And Mr Secretary. I would have thought you would wish to keep him away from rogues.’
‘Eh? We are honest folk, of English blood and honour. Gentlemen faithful to the crown, we are.’ Alwin’s head had risen and his eyes were fixed on Danforth’s livery. ‘We follow the king in all matters, and his secretary and good Queen Anne, too. King Henry is the lantern and light of our kingdom.’
‘Then I should look into buying good candles.’
At this, confusion drew Alwin’s brows together. ‘Eh?’
‘Nothing. You say your boy fell in with a bad crowd.’
‘Bad. Call themselves the Fleet Boys. Wear green ribbons on their arms.’ Danforth’s tongue darted over his lips. On attending the Alwin house, he had passed a crowd of bickering youths, some of whom were casting nervous glances towards it. ‘Rather than join with Mr Secretary’s lads, they fight them. Write slanders on the city walls. Wicked things, things against the secretary’s chosen people.’
‘I have heard of such things.’ London had, indeed, grown notorious. Secretary Cromwell had grown quite a household of wayward youths, and those youths had taken on even younger servants, and those servants ranged about the streets, calling the city their own. Small wonder that those not part of the gang formed their own in response. Stirring abroad after dark was a risk, and the constables of the watch did little, lest they find that they had inadvertently taken up men protected by the crown’s special servants. ‘These are bloody times.’
‘Good times, though, sir, under the good king.’
Danforth decided not to argue. It was neither the time nor place. ‘Do you think it likely that one of Mr Secretary’s lusty boys grew hot-blooded and fought your son, sir? Such a youth will find no protection if that is the case.’ He knew he could never make that stick.
‘No. No, I want no trouble. Better that you look to his fellows, those Fleet Boys. He was set to –’
A knock at the door. Alwin’s eyes widened. ‘Who the bloody hell is that?’ he said, rising to answer it. Danforth watched as he did so. Light burst in and Danforth blinked. Framed in the blazing sunshine of the doorway was a boy of about fifteen. ‘What the devil do you want? Get away, away from here!’ He slammed the door. ‘You see?’ He hissed, turning. ‘They torment us even now!’
Danforth hopped up. ‘Even they? I must go, Mr Alwin. I … am sorry for your loss. Truly. You will be informed of the progress of the inquest. You have been a help to us.’ He held out his hand. Alwin didn’t take it.
‘No trouble, sir, I pray you. We are good servants of the king. We would be gone to the execution today, to see the traitor die, if not for … well. We say nothing against it. It is right that the head strikes off the rebellious foot.’ Danforth said nothing, lowering his hand. When, he wondered, had England become such a place of suspicion and fear? ‘Do you have sons?’
‘When you do, I pray He does not let you see the world corrupt them. Nor let you live to see them buried. Intermeddle with those creatures out there at your own risk. Oh, my boy. I cannot yet,’ he sniffed, ‘truly believe it.’ He wiped again at his nose with his shaking, linen-wrapped hand.
‘I think,’ said Danforth, ‘that corruption spreads downwards. From the head of kingdoms. Deforming all.’ The words galloped out like unchained beasts. At first it had felt like the England of his youth was dying, but now it felt rather that it was being reborn into something monstrous. Even the Boleyn woman’s much-talked-of friendship with tiresome old France was said to have collapsed.
He had gone too far.
‘I’m not understanding your meaning. Good day, sir.’ Alwin elbowed him out and shut the door.
Outside the house in Honey Lane, the youth who had intruded on the Alwins stood addressing a crowd of about ten boys. They were indeed the troupe Danforth had passed earlier. Each had a cheap red ribbon tied around his forearm. At each belt hung the same type of short-bladed dagger recovered from the dead boy. He moved towards them, away from the house, wiping the sweat from his brow before raising a hand in salute. ‘Ho, lads. Looks like being a hot one today. No unlawful assemblies here, I trust.’ The rest of the street, he could see, was deserted. His attempt at a joke had fallen flat.
‘Who are you?’ said the leader, nodding in the direction of the house. ‘You kin to our Harry?’ Then he spotted the livery. Danforth frowned; he had meant to replace his coat, still folded over one arm, but his tongue had run away with him. ‘You a constable? We ain’t doin’ nothin’. Just come to say how sorry we was about Harry is all.’
‘I am no constable. A servant of the crown, only. I returned Harry’s things to his father.’
‘That prick. Only saying we was sorry.’
‘He has lost his son,’ said Danforth, his voice low. ‘When did you last see Harry?’
‘Uh … not sure. Dunno.’
Another boy piped, ‘He didn’t show last night, did he, Ned?’
‘Quiet,’ hissed the leader. ‘We don’t know nothin’.’ His eyes were on the livery again.
‘I see. His father seeks justice.’
‘That’s what we come to say too.’ Ned’s eyes became a fury of lashes as he blinked at the sun’s glare. He raised a pudgy hand for shade. ‘We’ll get them other lot for what they done to Harry.’
‘You will do no such thing.’ Danforth lowered his voice. Tried to coarsen it. ‘Make trouble with the secretary’s boys, eh? You’ll have a war. I doubt anyone could save you from the gallows then.’
‘Fuck them lads. They took one of us, we’ll take two of them. Ain’t that right, boys?’
A ripple ran through the assembly. Not, Danforth thought, an entirely enthusiastic one. ‘A fair Jason to lead so scrappy a band of Argonauts,’ he said. ‘So, Ned, is it? You know it was one of them killed your friend, then?’
‘Course it bloody was, dirty, smelly, whores’ sons.’ This drew a more positive reaction from his fellows.
‘Mr Alwin believes there ought to be an end to these broils. Believes,’ added Danforth, ‘that his Harry was ready to break with you fellows.’
‘Harry’d never break with us. Old fucker’s lying.’ Ned stepped forward. He was short, but well built. He came close enough for his body odour to clamber up Danforth’s nostrils.
‘Never,’ said another boy, apparently emboldened.
‘He was one of us!’
Danforth held up his hands. ‘Just repeating what was said.’
‘Well it’s lies, then, yeah?’ asked Ned.
‘Perhaps. Only …’ He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘It looks to me like you pups are after a war with the secretary’s lads. I see you have changed from green to furious and vengeful red.’
‘If it’s a war they want then they’ve started it, killin’ our Harry.’ More murmurs of agreement and words of vengeance. ‘We ain’t no pups.’
‘Hm. It simply seems to me that he who uses deceit in war might be much praised for it.’
‘The fuck are you talking about, you scrawny buzzard?’
‘Merely saying that if one wished to make a war and the enemy did not oblige, it would be a simple matter to slay an ally – especially one who spoke of deserting – and blame that enemy.’
Confusion reigned on Ned’s face. It was up to another of the Fleet Boys to step forward and explain. ‘I see him, Ned. I see what he’s all about. Sayin’ you done in Harry so we’d have a reason to fight them lot. He’s sayin’ you killed Harry!’
Eleven hands flew to eleven belts, fists clamping over hilts. Danforth stepped back. His throat ran dry. He could flee to Alwin’s house but doubted if the door would be opened to him. ‘Right, crown man,’ said Ned, moving towards him again. The other boys, turned wolflike, began to form a tightening circle. ‘I reckon you’ve got a big, loose fucking tongue.’
Danforth swallowed before speaking. He bit his lip briefly. ‘That,’ he said, his eyes flitting between the cobbled street and Ned’s face, ‘was exactly what your mother said to me last night.’
Ned’s face began to redden.
And then the whole assembly erupted in laughter. Danforth let out a deep breath, thanking God that lads were as puerile as they had been in his university days.
‘The scraggly goat got you, Neddy!’ screeched one. ‘He’s all right!’
Danforth cut a path through them. He paused where Honey Lane met Cheapside and turned. Over his shoulder, he called, ‘you see the accusations the interest of the crown might bring on all your heads, even the innocent ones. In my day, it was wenches lads sought, not bloody wars. Think on that – what kind of half-men prefer to pierce other lads than fair maids?’ He did not get another bout of laughter. Instead, a sudden buzz of conversation followed him. Perhaps he might have turned some of the more reluctant ones away from an idle life of reckless criminality. Perhaps not.
The busiest shopping district in London was quiet, with only knots of elderly people clustered, their heads bowed. Weeping, Danforth thought, but not for Harry Alwin. Across the road he spotted his colleague, Blunt, arms folded as he glared at the close-knit mourners. Skirting a pile of rags that might have been a beggar, he approached him.
‘What news, Mr Blunt?’
‘No one seen nothing, ’cept the father chasing him, demanding he mend his ways, railing on him for dishonouring the name Alwin.’ He belched sour ale fumes. ‘And no honest men to be found to make an inquest jury. Not in the tavern anyway. This other business of the day’s in every man’s mouth. None care about the lad. Just another one dead and better for it. One less ruffian jetting about. Christ, but it’s hot already. How was the parents?’
Danforth jerked his head to one side and led Blunt into the shadows of a gable. ‘I think I have our murderer.’
‘I regret that it was the father slew the son.’
Blunt repeated his question, following it up with, ‘he confessed?’
‘No. I found it by other means.’
‘Those better be some bloody good means.’
Danforth shrugged. ‘You remark on the heat of the day. Yet Richard Alwin burns a merry fire. Like an oven, that house. I daresay he was destroying a bloodied doublet. If we send the constable quickly, he might still find the buttons in the grate.’
‘Slim. Sudden shock brings a chill.’
‘Yes. Yet I think also that the fellow was wounded in the hand by his son. It seems to me that he followed the boy, crying on him to quit his friends by harsh words. The boy drew his dagger during a hot-blooded speech, probably proclaiming on his own honour, and stabbed it at him. And so his father drew his sword. He hides his hand in a kerchief. And,’ added Danforth, wiping his brow where a pearl of sweat popped, ‘the wound on the boy. It was no short blade did that but a long sword. It must have been to go clean through the body. Only gentlemen carry swords. Nor did he wish to look upon the corpse. Frightened it might bleed in the presence of its killer, I fancy, or open its eyes in accusation.’
‘Christ,’ said Blunt. ‘You’re sure of this?’
‘Fairly sure. I suspect the wife and younger son might speak against him. Her face spoke of a beating into silence rather than grief. And it struck me that Mr Alwin seemed more concerned about his honour than his dead boy. He shed no tears.’ He sighed. ‘Oh, I know that every man grieves differently. But only a guilty man might counterfeit grief.’ He mimicked, ‘Oh, my boy,’ before adding, ‘but not a word about seeking justice – only about hiding from trouble.’
‘We need a confession.’ Blunt’s jaw twitched. ‘Yet better an unnatural gentleman than a feud of blood between the secretary’s boys and their rivals, eh? No great disturbance to the peace here. The streets of London are safe under the king. You’ll be rewarded if we can take him. And no murder, neither, if it were done in chance medley.’
‘That is for the courts to adjudge.’
‘A fight between father and son. Nothing for the balladeers or rhymesters there.’
Suddenly, the air was rent by the distant boom of cannon.
Danforth’s jaw unlocked and with it silence fell, as though the whole city was holding its breath. Then came muted sobs, coarsened by some cheers.
‘That’s Fisher copped it.’
‘Cardinal Fisher,’ said Danforth, removing his hat.
Blunt did not meet his eyes. ‘They say More will be next.’
‘I do not doubt it.’ Falling like ninepins now: Wolsey long gone, now Fisher, More next, the rightful queen and Princess Mary cast away. He crossed himself. ‘Good men. And scarcely a cry, save from those poor old folks.’ He gave a shrill of laughter and felt spiky heat prickle on his cheeks. ‘I thought we English were a proud, a free people. That we fought back against wild swings from our kings. Now – now, I think that if a great cannon were wrapped in velvets and declared our lord and master, most of us would line up to get shot in the face. Obsequious!
‘Is it any wonder we have such strange and unnatural deaths when those few churchmen who still have spines get them severed? By God, that murdering creature Alwin learnt his trade from the governors of this realm. They stir hatred and division and the people look and learn. The lantern and light of our kingdom, indeed – shining the way to murder.’
Blunt drew back, a large hand circling his throat. He glanced around, as though the half-empty street might hide spies. ‘Mr – Simon – I … I must away. Find those jurors. You … your speeches grow wild. The heat, eh? I … you’ll write up what you found? Good strong report, enough to make an indictment. Maybe tomorrow, eh, give me time to find our men? The news has stirred up your humours. I shan’t say nothing about that. Only …’
‘I think you’re wrong. This thing, the boy’s death, I mean – it shows that the young bucks aren’t the cause of disorder. Simple hot blood is. That’s always been with us. Always will be. You … I think you look for causes where there are excuses. Your good sight becomes clouded.’
‘Nonsense. There were no such hatreds stirred in my father’s time.’
‘As you say. And the report for the master?’
‘I shall write it today. Now.’
Blunt nodded, a little too eagerly, before turning on his heel and disappearing along Cheapside.
Danforth remained in the shadows.
It had felt good to speak of King Henry. The tyrant, his minions, his concubine, and his secretary were painting England red with blood. And few men were saying anything, far fewer doing anything.
Blunt might report his speech – he suspected not, but one never knew. Let him, then. The man was stupid and wrong – a bending reed, like the rest of them.
He would write his report and leave Richard Alwin to face whatever justice still existed. He suspected that the man would suffer not because of his obvious guilt, but because it would ensure that none of Cromwell’s rag-tag rabble of hangers-on were associated with the death of one from their rival gang of malcontent young fools.
It was almost a pity that he would not be around to witness it. He took a last look around. He would not see Cheapside again. Nor, in fact, would he see Honey Lane, or Bankside, or York Place, or any number of London’s places again. After writing his report, he would seal and address it to his master, the lazy city coroner, and then take his strongbox and be out of the city before anyone could miss him. London might drown itself in blood and sin, and with it would sink memories of his parents, Alice, little Margaret, Henry VIII and his false queen. All would fade like the ink on cheap paper.
On the morrow, he would take his first steps in establishing a new life in a new country where churchmen did not lose their heads for denying that their sovereign lord was also a little pope. A new country were men were not made afraid to speak. A new country where he might serve men who served the true faith.
Fare you well, England, he thought – and God deliver you from the dark light of a lunatic.
This story is from, Royal Blood, an HWA Short Story collection.