EARLY NEXT MORNING I RODE into the City again. It was another hot day; the sunlight reflecting from the diamond panes of the Cheapside buildings made me blink.
In the pillory by the Standard a middle-aged man stood with a paper cap on his head and a loaf of bread hung round his neck. A placard identified him as a baker who had sold short weight. A few rotten fruits were spattered over his robe but the passers-by paid him little attention. The humiliation would be the worst of his punishment, I thought, looking up at where he sat, then I saw his face contort with pain as he shifted his position. With his head and arms pinioned and his neck bent forward, it was a painful position for one no longer young; I shuddered to think of the pain my back would have given me were I put in his place. And yet it gave me far less trouble these days, thanks to Guy.
Guy's was one of a row of apothecaries' shops in a narrow alley just past the Old Barge. The Barge was a huge, ancient house, once grand but now let out as cheap apartments. Rooks' nests were banked up against the crumbling battlements and ivy ran riot over the brickwork. I turned into the alley, welcoming the shade.
As I pulled to a halt in front of Guy's shop, I had the uneasy sensation of being watched. The lane was quiet, most of the shops not yet open for business. I dismounted slowly and tied Chancery to the rail, trying to look unconcerned but listening out for any movement behind me. Then I turned swiftly and looked up the lane.
I caught a movement at an upper storey of the Old Barge. I looked up, but had only the briefest glimpse of a shadowy figure at a window before the worm-eaten shutters were pulled closed. I stared for a moment, filled with a sudden uneasiness, then turned to Guy's shop.
It had only his name, 'Guy Malton', on the sign above the door. The window displayed neatly labelled flasks, rather than the stuffed alligators and other monsters most apothecaries favour. I knocked and went in. As usual the shop was clean and tidy, herbs and spices in jars lining the shelves. The room's musky, spicy smell brought Guy's consulting room at Scarnsea monastery back to my mind. Indeed the long apothecary's robe he wore was so dark a shade of green that in the dim light it looked almost black and could have been mistaken for a monk's robe. He was seated at his table, a frown of concentration on his thin, dark features as he applied a poultice from a bowl to an ugly burn on the arm of a thickset young man. I caught a whiff of lavender. Guy looked up and smiled, a sudden flash of white teeth.
'A minute more, Matthew,' he said in his lisping accent.
'I am sorry, I am earlier than I said I would be.'
'No matter, I am nearly done.'
I nodded and sat down on a chair. I looked at a chart on the wall, showing a naked man at the centre of a series of concentric circles, Man joined to his creator by the chains of nature. It reminded me of somebody pinned to an archery target. Underneath, a diagram of the four elements and the four types of human nature to which they correspond: earth for melancholic, water for phlegmatic, air for cheerful and fire for choleric.
The young man let out a sigh and looked up at Guy.
'By God's son, sir, that eases me already.'
'Good. Lavender is full of cold and wet properties, it draws the dry heat from your arm. I will give you a flask of this and you must apply it four times a day.'
The young man looked curiously at Guy's brown face. 'I have never heard of such a remedy. Is it used in the land you come from, sir? Perhaps there everyone is burned by the sun.'
'Oh, yes, Master Pettit,' Guy said seriously. 'If we did not wear lavender there we should all burn and shrivel up. We coat the palm trees with it too.' His patient gave him a keen look, perhaps scenting mockery. I noticed that his big square hands were spotted with pale scars. Guy rose and passed him a flask with a smile, raising a long finger. 'Four times a day, mind. And apply some to the wound on your leg made by that foolish physician.'
'Yes, sir.' The young man rose. 'I feel the burning going already, it has been an agony even to have my sleeve brush against it this last week. Thank you.' He took his purse from his belt and passed the apothecary a silver groat. As he left the shop Guy turned to me and laughed softly.
'When people made remarks like that at first I would correct them, tell them we have snow in Granada, which we do. But now I just agree with them. They are never sure if I joke or not. Still, it keeps me in their minds. Perhaps he will tell his friends in Lothbury.'
'He is a founder?'
'Ay, Master Pettit has just finished his apprenticeship. A serious young fellow. He spilt hot lead on his arm, but hopefully that old remedy will ease him.'
I smiled. 'You are learning the ways of business. Turning your differences to advantage.'
Apothecary Guy Malton, once Brother Guy of Malton, had fled Spain with his Moorish parents as a boy after the fall of Granada. He had trained as a physician at Louvain. He had become my friend on my mission to Scarnsea three years before, helped me during that terrible time, and when the monastery was dissolved I had hoped to set him up as a physician in London. But the College would not have him, with his brown face and papist past. With a little bribery, however, I had got him into the Apothecaries' Guild and he had managed to build up a good trade.
'Master Pettit went to a physician first.' Guy shook his head. 'He stitched a clyster thread into his leg to draw the pain down from his arm, and when the wound became inflamed insisted that showed the clyster was working.' He pulled off his apothecary's cap, revealing a head of curly hair that had once been black but now was mostly white. It still seemed odd to see him without his tonsure. He studied me closely with his keen brown eyes.
'And how have you been this last month, Matthew?'
'Still better. I do my exercises twice a day like a good patient. My back troubles me little unless I have to lift something heavy, like the great bundles of legal papers that mount in my room at Lincoln's Inn.'
'You should get your clerk to do that.'
'He gets them out of order. You've never seen such a noddle as Master Skelly.'
He smiled. 'Well, I will have a look at it if I may.'
He rose, lit a sweet-smelling candle, then closed the shutters as I removed my doublet and shirt. Guy was the only one I allowed to see my twisted back. He got me to stand, move my shoulders and arms, then stood behind me and gently probed my back muscles. 'Good,' he said. 'There is little stiffness. You may get dressed. Keep on with your exercises. It is good to have a conscientious patient.'
'I would not like to go back to the old days, fearing ever-worsening pain.'
He gave me another of his keen looks. 'And you are still melancholy? I see it in your face.'
'I have a melancholy nature, Guy. It is settled in me.' I looked at the chart on the wall. 'Everything in the world is made of a mixture of the four elements, and I have too much of earth. The imbalance is fixed in me.'
He inclined his dark head. 'There is nothing under the moon that is not subject to change.'
I shook my head. 'I seem to take less and less interest in the stirs of politics and the law, though once they were the heart of my life. It has been so since Scarnsea.'
'That was a terrible time. You do not miss being close to the centre of power?' He hesitated. 'To Lord Cromwell?'
I shook my head. 'No, I dream of a quiet life in the country somewhere, perhaps near my father's farm. Maybe then I will feel like taking up painting again.'
'Yet I wonder if that is the life for you, my friend. Would you not become bored without cases to sharpen your wits on, problems to solve?'
'Once I might have. But London now-' I shook my head- 'fuller of fanatics and cozeners every year. And my profession has enough of both.'
He nodded. 'Ay, in matters of religion opinions get more extreme. I tell people nothing of my past, as you may imagine. Dun's the mouse as the proverb has it; colourlessness and stillness keep one safe.'
'I have no patience with any of it these days. Sometimes I think all that matters is faith in Christ and all else is no more than a jangle of words.'
He smiled wryly. 'That is not what you would have said once.'
'No. Yet sometimes even that essential faith eludes me, and I can believe only that man is a fallen creature.' I laughed sadly. 'That I can believe.' I pulled the crumpled pamphlet from my pocket and laid it on the table. 'See there, the girl's uncle is an old client of mine. He wants me to help her. Her trial is on Saturday. That is why I have come early, I am meeting him at Newgate at nine.' I told him of my meeting with Joseph the day before. Strictly it was breaching a confidence, but I
knew Guy would say nothing.
'She refuses to speak at all?' he asked when I had finished, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
'Not one word. You'd think she'd be startled out of that when she learned she'd be pressed, but she hasn't been. It makes me think her wits must be affected.' I looked at him seriously. 'Her uncle begins to fear possession.'
He inclined his head. 'It is easy to cry "possession". I have sometimes wondered if the man from whom Our Lord cast out a devil was not merely a poor lunatic'
I gave him a sidelong look. 'The Bible is quite clear he was possessed.'
'And today we must believe all that is said in the Bible and only that. Master Coverdale's translation of it, that is.' Guy smiled wryly. Then his face became thoughtful and he began pacing the room, the hem of his robe brushing the clean rushes on the floor.
'You can't assume she is mad,' he said. 'Not yet. People have many reasons for silence. Because there are things one is too ashamed or frightened to reveal. Or to protect someone else.'
'Or because one has ceased to care what happens to one.'
'Yes. That is a terrible state, near to suicide.'
'Whatever her reasons, I'll have to persuade the girl out of it if I'm to save her life. The press is a horrible death.' I stood up. 'Oh, Guy, why did I let myself get drawn into this? Most lawyers don't touch criminal cases, the accused not being allowed representation. I've advised one or two before their trials, but I don't enjoy it. And I hate the stink of death around the assizes, knowing in a few days the carts will roll to Tyburn.'
'But the cans go to Tyburn whether you see them or no. If you can make an empty space in one of those carts-'
I smiled wryly. 'You still have a monk's faith in salvation through good works.'
'Should not we all believe in the righteousness of charity?'
'Yes, if we have the energy for it.' I stood up. 'Well, I am due at Newgate.'
'I have a potion,' he said, 'that can sometimes lift a man's spirits. Reduce the black bile in his stomach.'
I raised a hand. 'No, Guy, I thank you but so long as my wits are not dulled, I will stay in the state God has called me to.'
'As you wish.' He extended a hand. 'I will say a prayer for you.'
'Beneath that big old Spanish cross of yours? You still have it in your bedroom?'
'It was my family's.'
'Beware the constable. Just because evangelicals are being arrested now it doesn't mean the government's any easier on Catholics.'
'The constable's a friend. Last month he drank some water he bought from a carrier and an hour later staggered into my shop clutching his stomach in agony.'
'He drank water? Unboiled? Everyone knows it is full of deadly humours.'
'He was very thirsty; you know how hot the weather has been. He was badly poisoned – I made him swallow a spoonful of mustard to make him sick.'
I shuddered. 'I thought salted beer was the best emetic.'
'Mustard is better, it works at once. He recovered and now he stumps merrily around the ward calling my praises.' His face became serious. 'Just as well: with all this talk of invasion foreigners are not popular these days. I get insults called after me in the streets more frequently; I always cross the street if there is a gang of apprentices around.'
'I am sorry. The times get no easier.'
'The City is full of rumours the king is unhappy with his new marriage,' he said. 'That Anne of Cleves may fall and Cromwell with her.'
'Are there not always new rumours, new fears?' I laid a hand on his shoulder. 'Keep courage. And come to dinner next week.'
'I shall.' He led me to the door. I turned back to him. 'Don't forget that prayer.'
I unhitched Chancery and rode up the lane. As I passed the Old Barge I looked up at the window where I had seen the figure. It was still shuttered. But as I turned back into Bucklersbury I had the feeling of being watched again. I turned my head abruptly. The streets were getting busy, but I saw a man in a doublet of lusty-gallant red leaning against a wall with his arms folded, staring straight at me. He was in his late twenties, with a strong-featured face, comely but hard, under untidy brown hair. He had a fighter's build, broad shoulders and a narrow waist. As he met my gaze his wide mouth twisted into a mocking grin. Then he turned away and walked with a quick, light step towards the Barge, disappearing into the crowds.