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Chapter Thirty-five

I SAT IN MY BEDROOM, staring down at the jar of Greek Fire on my table. I had brought a plate from the kitchen and poured a little onto it; the brownish-black viscous liquid lay there, glistening like a toad's skin. I pulled the table over to the open window to dispel the acrid tang of the stuff. I left the candle on the other side of the room for safety, though that meant there was insufficient light to examine it further. In truth, I was afraid of it. Tomorrow, I had decided, I would take it to Guy.

A knock at the door made me jump. Wincing at a spasm from my back, I hastily covered the jar and plate with a cloth, calling, 'Wait a moment!'

'It's me,' Barak replied through the door. 'Can I come in?'

'I – I'm getting dressed. Wait in your room, I'll come to you.'

To my relief I heard retreating footsteps. I sniffed the air, but the smell was faint and could not have reached him through the door. Leaving the window open, I slipped out of the room, locking it behind me.

Barak had been asleep when I had returned from St Bartholomew's half an hour before and I had left him. As I knocked at his door I recalled that in the conflicts that had raged around reformers over which of apparently conflicting biblical passages one should follow, I had ever preferred, 'Obey God rather than man,' over 'Let every man be subject to the governing authorities.' I knew I would have to lie to Barak now, and did not relish it, but I felt in my heart that taking the Greek Fire to Guy was the right course. I shuddered at the thought that if the servant had not arrived when he did, Rich might have had it. Although he might have plenty already, for all I knew.

Barak was sitting on the bed in his shirt, mournfully examining a pair of dusty netherstocks. He put his finger through a hole. 'Hard riding's done for these,' he said.

'I'm sure Lord Cromwell will pay for more.' The room was a mess, dirty clothes and greasy plates strewn over the floor and the table. I remembered my former assistant Mark, who had once had this room, how tidy he had kept it.

Barak crumpled the torn stocks into a ball and threw them into a corner.

'Any luck at Barty's?'

'No. We dug up the grave but there was nothing in it, only St John's skeleton. Rich was there. He came up and demanded to know my business.'

'Shit. What did you tell the arsehole?'

'I thought there might be trouble, but the summons from Cromwell arrived just then and he went off in a hurry.'

Barak sighed. 'Another trail gone cold. We must see what the earl gets out of Rich. He'll send a message once he's talked to him.'

'And Marchamount is back tomorrow. I'll go into chambers and see him.'

Barak nodded, then looked up at me. 'Are you up to trying the well again tonight? There won't be a message from the earl for hours, perhaps not till tomorrow morning. My shoulder's much better.'

I was far from up to it, I ached with tiredness from head to toe and my arm hurt. But I had promised, and after all it was for Elizabeth that I had agreed to do everything else in the first place. I nodded wearily. 'Let me just get some food, then we will go.'

'Good idea. I'm hungry too.' Barak, evidently restored by his rest, leaped from the bed and led the way downstairs. I followed, guilt at my deception of him gnawing at me.

Joan had prepared a pottage for us, which she brought to the parlour.

Barak scratched at his near-bald pate. 'Shit, this itches, damn it. I'll have to wear a cap when I go out from now on, I hate the way people stare at me, my head bald as a bird's arse like some old dotard-'

He was interrupted by a loud knock at the front door. 'That'll be the message,' he said, rising. 'That was quick.'

But it was Joseph Wentworth that Joan showed into the parlour a moment later. He looked exhausted, his clothes were dusty and his hair glinted with sweat. Haggard eyes stared from a dirty face.

'Joseph,' I said. 'What has happened?'

'I've come from Newgate,' he said. 'She's dying, sir. Elizabeth is dying.' And then the big man burst into tears, covering his face with his hands.

I made him sit down and tried to calm him. He wiped his face with a dirty rag of handkerchief, the same one he had brought the day he first came to the house, which Elizabeth had embroidered. He looked up at me, helpless and distraught, his earlier anger at my lack of progress apparently forgotten.

'What has happened?' I asked again gently.

'These last two days Elizabeth has had another cellmate. A child, a mad beggar girl who has been running round the wards accusing all she meets of abducting her little brother. She made trouble at a baker's shop in Cheapside-'

'We saw her the other day-'

'The baker complained. She was picked up by the constable and taken to the Hole. Elizabeth wouldn't talk to her, any more than she would to the old woman who was hanged-' He paused.

'She went wild when the old woman was taken out, though. Has that happened again?'

Joseph shook his head wearily. 'No. When I went to visit Lizzy this morning the turnkey told me the child had been examined by a doctor and removed to the Bedlam. He reckoned her mad. But he said when he went to take them food last night, he heard Lizzy and the girl talking. He couldn't hear what they were saying but he remarked it; it was the first time he had heard Elizabeth speak, and the girl had been sullen and quiet too since she was put in the Hole.'

'What was her name?'

'Sarah, I believe. She and her brother were orphans, kicked out of St Helen's foundling hospital when the nunnery closed.' He sighed. 'This morning Elizabeth just sat, hollow-eyed, would not even look at me or at the food I had brought, though her last meal was lying there untouched. Then when I went this evening-' He broke off and put his head in his hands again.

'Joseph,' I said, 'I was hoping to have some news for you tomorrow. I know you feared I had forgotten you-'

He looked up at me. 'You're all I have, Master Shardlake. You were my only hope. But now I fear it's too late. This evening Lizzy was lying insensible on the straw, her face burning hot to the touch. She has gaol fever, sir.'

Barak and I exchanged glances. Outbreaks of fever were common in gaols, blamed on the foul humours released by the stinking straw. Whole prisons had sometimes died of it, and it had been known to penetrate the Old Bailey, felling witnesses and even judges. If Elizabeth had it, her chances were slim.

'The turnkeys won't go near her,' Joseph said. 'I said I'd pay to have her put somewhere better, get a physician. Though God knows how, I hear my crops are ruined by the heat.' A note of hysteria entered his voice.

I rose wearily. 'Then I shall have to take a hand. I have assumed a responsibility for Elizabeth and it is time I met it. I'll come to the gaol. I know they have good rooms for those who can pay. And I know an apothecary who can cure her if anyone can.'

'She needs a physician.'

'This man is a physician, though as a foreigner he is not allowed to practise here.'

'But the cost-'

'I'll deal with that – you can repay me later. God knows,' I muttered, 'at least this is something clean and clear to do.'

'I'll come if you like,' Barak said.

'You will?' Joseph looked at him, staring a little as he noticed his shaven head for the first time.

'Thank you, Barak. Then come, I will get Simon to run to Guy with a note, ask him to come to Newgate.' I stood up. From somewhere, God knew where, I had found a last reserve of energy. Joseph might have thought me self-sacrificing, but I felt that if Elizabeth died now before our time was up, after all my decision to act for her had led me into, the irony would be so dark as to be beyond bearing.



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