WHEN WE LEFT THE ROOM Barak told me he had things to collect. I went outside, fetched Chancery and led him into the front yard. From a little distance a murmuring was audible, and I heard a shout of 'Don't shove there!' The doles were being distributed.
My mind was in a whirl. Cromwell and reform about to fall? I remembered Godfrey's distress a few days ago, the mutterings everywhere about the queen. Though my faith had reached a low ebb, I felt a clutch of dread at the thought of the papists back in charge, the bloodshed and return to superstition that must follow.
I began walking distractedly about the yard. Now I was saddled with this churl Barak. What was he doing? 'A pox on it all!' I burst out aloud.
'Ho there, what's this?' I whirled round to see Barak grinning at me. I reddened with embarrassment.
'Don't worry,' he said. 'Things affect me like that sometimes. But I've a choleric temperament. His lordship said you were a man of melancholy humour, who keeps his feelings to himself.'
'Usually I do,' I said curtly. I saw that Barak carried a big leather satchel slung over his shoulder. He inclined his head to it. 'The papers from the abbey and some material my master has gathered about Greek Fire.'
He fetched the black mare and we rode out again. 'I'm starving hungry,' he said conversationally. 'Does your house-keeper keep a good table?'
'Good plain fare,' I replied shortly.
'Will you see the girl's uncle soon?'
'I'll send him a note when I get back.'
'His lordship has saved her the press,' he said. 'It's a nasty death.'
'Twelve days. We don't have long, either for Elizabeth or this other business.'
'It's all a fog to me.' Barak shook his head. 'You're right to question Mother Gristwood again.'
'Mother? She's childless.'
'Is she? Not surprised. I wouldn't want to tup her. Nasty old stoat.'
'I don't know why you dislike her so, but that's no basis for suspicion.' I spoke shortly. Barak grunted. I turned and looked at him. 'Your master seems very concerned Sir Richard Rich should not be involved.'
'If he learned about Greek Fire and its loss he'd use it against the earl. My master raised Rich up, as he said, but he's a man who'd betray anyone for his own advantage. You know his reputation.'
'Yes. He founded his career by perjuring himself at Thomas More's trial. Many say that was at your master's bidding.'
Barak shrugged. We rode on in silence for a while, up towards Ely Place. Then Barak drew his horse in close. 'Don't look round,' he said quietly, 'but we're being followed.'
I looked at him in surprise. 'Are you sure?'
'I think so. I've taken a quick look back once or twice and the same man's been there. Odd-looking arsehole. Here, turn in by St Andrew's Church.'
He led the way through the gate, behind the high wall enclosing the church, and jumped quickly down from his horse. I dismounted more slowly. 'Hurry now,' he said impatiently, leading the mare behind the wall. I joined him where he stood peering round the gateway.
'See,' he breathed, 'here he comes. Don't stick your head out too far.'
There were plenty of pedestrians around and a few carts, but the only rider was a man on a white colt. He was about Barak's age, tall and thin, with a thatch of untidy brown hair. His pale face had a scholarly look, though it was pitted as an old cheese with the scars of smallpox. As we watched the man halted, shading his eyes against the sun as he looked up the road to Holborn Bar. Barak pulled me back. 'He's missed us. He'll be looking round in a moment. What a face, he looks as if he's just been dug up.' I frowned at his presumption in grabbing at me, but he only smiled back cheerily, pleased to have bested the white-faced man.
'Come on, we'll lead the horses round the church and go back by Shoe Lane.' He took the mare's reins. I followed him on the path through the churchyard.
'Who was that?' I asked as we halted on the far side of the church – somewhat breathlessly, for he had led a brisk pace.
'Don't know. He must have been following us since we left his lordship's house. There's not many would have the nerve to set watch there.' He heaved himself deftly into the saddle, and I lifted myself onto Chancery's back more slowly; after my day of riding hither and thither my back was sore. Barak looked at me curiously.
'You all right?'
'Yes,' I snapped, settling myself in the saddle.
He shrugged. 'Well just ask, any time, if you want a hand. It's nothing to me you're a hunchback, I'm not superstitious.' I stared after him, speechless, as he turned and led the way into Shoe Lane, whistling tunelessly.
As we rode on to Chancery Lane I was too offended by his insolence to speak, but then I thought I should find out what I could about the wretched man. 'That's twice I've been watched this last week,' I said. 'By that man and before by you.'
'Ay,' Barak answered cheerfully. 'His lordship set me to see what sort of case you were in, whether you might stand up to this job. I told him you had a determined look about you.'
'Did you? And have you worked for the earl a long time?'
'Oh, ay. My father came from Putney, where the earl's father kept his tavern. When he died I was asked to enter Lord Cromwell's service. I had my own contacts round London then, doing this and that' – he raised an eyebrow and gave that cynical smile again – 'and he's found me useful enough.'
'What did your father do?'
'He was a gong-screwer, cleaned out people's cesspits. Silly old arsehole, he fell into one of the pits he was digging out and drowned.' Despite the lightness of his tone a brief shadow passed across his face.
'I am sorry.'
'I've no family now,' Barak said cheerfully. 'Free of all ties. What about you?'
'My father is still alive. He has a farm in Lichfield, in the Midlands.' My conscience pricked me. He was getting old, but I had not been back to see him in a year.
'Son of carrot crunchers, eh? Where did you get your education? Do they have schools up there?'
'They do. I went to Lichfield cathedral school.'
'I've an education too,' Barak replied. 'Know some Latin.'
'I went to St Paul's school, got a scholarship for a clever lad, but I had to fend for myself after my father died.' Again that brief shadow of sadness, or was it anger? He tapped his satchel. 'Those Latin papers my master gave me for you, I can read them. Well, just about.'
As we turned in at my gate Barak studied my house; I could see he was impressed by the mullioned windows and tall chimneys. He turned to me, raising that eyebrow again. 'Fine place.'
'Now we are here,' I said, 'we had better have our story clear. I suggest we tell my servants you are the agent of a client and are helping me on a case.'
He nodded. 'All right. What servants have you?'
'My housekeeper, Joan Woode, and a boy.' I gave him a fixed stare. 'You should also look to how you address me. Given our respective stations, "sir" would be appropriate; "Master Shardlake" would at least be civil. All the way here it has been "you" as though I were your brother or your dog. That will not do.'
'Right you are.' He grinned cheekily. 'Need a hand down, sir?'
'I can manage.'
As we dismounted, the boy Simon appeared from behind the house. He stared at Barak's mare in admiration.
'That's Sukey,' Barak told him. 'Look after her well and there'll be something for you.' He winked. 'She likes a carrot now and then.'
'Yes, sir.' Simon bowed and led the horses away. Barak watched him go.
'Shouldn't he have shoes? He'll be cutting his feet on ruts and stones this dry weather.'
'He won't wear them. Joan and I have tried.'
Barak nodded. 'Ay, shoes are uncomfortable at first. They rub on your calluses.'
Joan appeared in the doorway. She gave Barak a look of surprise. 'Good afternoon, sir. May I ask how it went at the court?'
'We've got twelve days' grace for Elizabeth,' I said. 'Joan, this is Master Jack. He will be staying with us a short while, to help me with a new matter on behalf of his master. Could you make a room ready for him?'
Barak bowed and gave her a smile, as charming as his earlier ones had been mocking. 'Master Shardlake did not tell me his housekeeper was so attractive.'
Joan's plump face reddened and she pushed some greying hairs under her cap. 'Oh, please, sir-'
I stared, surprised my sensible housekeeper should fall for such nonsense, but she was still red-faced as she led Barak in. I supposed women would find him good-looking if they were susceptible to rough charm. She led him upstairs. 'The room hasn't been slept in for a while, sir,' she said, 'but it's clean.'
I went into my parlour. Joan had opened the window and the tapestry on the wall showing the story of Joseph and his brothers stirred in the warm breeze. There was new rush matting on the floor, giving off the harsh tang of the wormwood Joan put on it to discourage fleas.
I remembered I must write to Joseph arranging to meet. I climbed the stairs to my study. As I passed Barak's room I heard my housekeeper clucking like an old hen about the state of the blankets. That room, I remembered, had once belonged to my former assistant, Mark. I shook my head in puzzlement at how the wheel of fortune turned.