Killing Beauties

By Pete Langman

Three 17th Century female spies work secretly to restore Charles II to the throne.

Susan awoke late. The events of the previous day, and perhaps, more unexpectedly, the evening that followed it, had taken their toll. She had not been able to leave Thurloe’s chambers early on account of her indisposition, but equally it had allowed her to avoid staying late, as well as ensuring that he postpone his parsley-sweetened plans. On arriving back at her lodgings Susan had taken a sleeping draught of her own concoction. It was both swift and long-acting. The sun was well past its zenith when she finally stirred. The fog in her head took a little longer to dissipate, but as it did so, it presaged a day of revelation.

‘I must visit the apothecary, today,’ she said. Not for the first time did she bemoan the fact that her current circumstances did not allow for a lady’s maid. There appeared to be little that she was not having to sacrifice in order that the Knot might survive. Or, she thought to herself, perhaps it was more accurate to say that there was little that Edward was unwilling to have her sacrifice.

Susan washed, dressed, and sat at her makeshift desk in her room. She sharpened her quill and opened her pot of ink. It was dried-up. A splash of urine failed to revive it suitably so she placed paper, ink pot, wax and seal into her medicine bag, slung it over her shoulder and set off to the Bailey. It was an area which made a chill run down the spine of anyone who tended to live at odds with the law of the land, for it was here that the capital’s criminal courts resided, and the resultant flow of miscreants along its streets made the Covent Garden regulars appear to be positively shining examples of urban health and moral rectitude. Her journey was without incident, in itself rarely to be remarked upon other than she was not in a state of mind that would have allowed her to react in the manner she would usually choose. Her fatigue and general confusion with regards recent events made it more likely that she would respond to, say, an attempt to relieve her of her purse with instinctive force rather than considered subtlety.

She arrived at Hinton’s shop only to find him out, the decks manned by his wife, a nice enough if perhaps rather uncomplicated soul. Susan bade her good day and she bade Susan wait while she finish mixing a receit. Susan sat, and when the woman was done with her measurements she requested oak gall and iron sulphate but was given a freshly-mixed pot of ink instead. It stank and Susan wondered who had mixed it, as whoever was responsible was unwell. She laid out her paper and began to write:

 

Sir,

It has beene some time since I had any from you, but I haue not had cavse yet to visit the apoteke’s, so there is little tidings regards my health at present. It will be news met with great pleasvre, I am sure, that young John do wax well, and that his new favorite game is blind man’s bluff. The aim of this game is to guess the person the others describe while you are blindfold. He becomes so expert we suspect him of reading the game cards in secret. Certainly he cheate us all somehow. He dotes also on his new pet. My sister is in the cuntry, and all attend her needs. I think that the trade that you began on your last visit proceedeth well, and the profit from it will soon be visible, though your merchant is not as you intended. You may wish to send new stock within the year. I heare also that your shop is well-liked by its customers, but that there will soon be a new tax introduced which may harm your business. I am euer hopeful that your next voyage might prefigure a longer stay in the place where your stock is held, and I wish you all happiness in your affayers, be they of the hart or of businesse. With fulsome prayers that God protect you and bring ioy of your soule and hers that really is

Euer your most humble seruant,

S.H.

 

Susan poured a handful of fine sand onto the paper, poured it off, and began the process of folding the letter into a complex booby-trap with a long triangle of paper threaded through the packet’s centre, several pieces of floss that looked as if they merely wrapped around the package but actually penetrated the whole packet, and a wafer in between. On top of this she applied wax and the seal of the Knot. If anyone interfered with this letter, Edward would know.

Finally, she endorsed the packet with the words Mr D’Esmond, Paris.

Her letter finished, she sat, and waited. Her fatigue was such that she took to taking a mental tally of Hinton’s wares to prevent sleep from claiming her once again. Hinton’s shop had two rooms, the front dedicated to display, including the theatre that accompanied the mixing of the many ingredients that sat in their jars, barrels and boxes into the concoction that best suited the individual. Susan, along with many less dependent on the performative aspects of the medical arts, preferred to use specificks such as peruvian bark that attended to the ailment in question rather than mix a combination of ingredients designed to act on the humours or an organ. Such treatments, which in themselves were designed around the age, constitution and humoural disposition of a patient often resulted in visible evacuation of the malady via purging or sweating. This, the theatrical aspect of medicine, was increasingly seen as being pursued to the detriment of the need for efficacy, and Susan belonged to this new school of thought. Hinton, however, was very much of the old school, and the front room of his shop was thus arranged so as best to display this obsession with display. This display did, however, make for a far more interesting object of study, even if it did rather contradict Bacon’s thoughts on the presentation of information.

She began by enumerating the inhabitants of shelves behind the counter, shelves which held fifty-seven glass jars, ninety-four pots, and twenty-five small boxes while twelve small barrels languished at their feet. The jars held the more exciting of the wares available, or at least pretended to, as many of them simply held coloured water. They also boasted the more ostentatious of the simples, and the purely exotic such as lizards and snakes: both dried and pickled. The pots took care of those things recognisable by name, such as gum Arabic, scurvy grass seed, witch hazel, henbane and the like. The boxes were unlabelled, the barrels of spirits of varying kinds, rose oil as base for perfumes and so on. On the counter in front of the shelves were those exotic stuffs that had been transformed from medicine to luxury items such as chocolate, tobacco and coffee.

There were also items of manufacturing expertise such as mortars, pestles, weights, beams, alembics and kettles and pans. Above the whole show hung a dried fish, bloated and covered in spines like a bleached amphibious hedgepig. Hinton had once had a dried alligator hanging there too but it had perished in the face of a sustained assault carried out by a monkey. The monkey, sat on the customer’s head as he walked in, had come face to face with alligator’s jaws and, in its violent panic, had jumped onto its back and torn it to pieces. Such was the danger of surprising people, she supposed.

‘The real value is in the back room,’ said a voice. It was the apothecary himself, Hinton, returned from his travels. ‘I presume you were counting and assessing my stock?’

‘You know me too well,’ said Susan, standing to follow him through into the back room, where he kept the substances of value, the gold leaf, the ambigris, the bezoar stones. ‘Though I see no plaister of Diacalcitis?’ From here they could enter the courtyard which, when its copper stills were stoked up and roaring, allowed them to talk without danger of being overheard.

‘We may speak freely, Susan,’ said Hinton.

‘Thank you, Anthony,’ said Susan. ‘Our first order of business is for you to make out a bill of exchange to Dr Morley for the sum of 50ll., payable by John Shaw.’ She opened her medicine bag and drew out five small leather bags of coin. ‘You may count them now, Anthony,’ she said, and the apothecary walked back into the shop’s back room to count, weigh and assess the money given him. He returned within minutes.

‘Your coin is a little over, but I’ll top up your bag with a specific or two, just to balance things out,’ said the apothecary. ‘And perhaps a small bag of Diacalcitis for your use. Which reminds me. Did our little concoction prove itself effective?’

‘Yes, indeed it did,’ said Susan. ‘If anything she was too sudden sick and well. But there were no suspicions raised.’

‘Most gratifying,’ said the apothecary, ‘but you said the first order of business. What, pray, might the second comprise, Susan?’

‘There is the matter of a letter to Paris,’ she said, handing over the packet to the apothecary. 'And I know not if you have heard, but Secretary Thurloe has a new position.’

‘Well, he can’t be much worse than he is already, surely?’ said the apothecary, placing the packet in his bag. ‘Can he?’

‘I rather fear that he can,’ said Susan. ‘Secretary Thurloe is now Postmaster-General.’

‘So, he finally controls both ends of the pony.’

‘We must find another courier.’

‘And, naturally, your thoughts flew to Asclepius,’ said the apothecary. ‘And such a move makes perfect sense. Though it is one thing to look to one humour and quite another to begin to work with all four. One artery cannot hold all the blood of a body, Susan. And if it should block?’

‘I would appreciate your advice in this matter, Anthony,’ said Susan. ‘But the fact is that the channels must be kept open, or the rebellion will founder, deprived of its lifeblood, information.’

‘And so the court will shrivel and die, bereft of its lifeblood, money,’ said the apothecary. ‘You must have a second route. Might I suggest John Chase? We tended the Princes together in ’48. He is loyal, trustworthy and able.’

‘His shop is near my lodgings, so perhaps I ought to approach him through you,’ said Susan. ‘Naturally, a suitable consideration will be forthcoming from his Majesty’s most loyal subjects.’ The apothecary smiled and held out his hand.

‘And one more thing, Anthony.’

‘A third indeed, Susan?’ replied the apothecary.

‘You have a sure and deadly poison, I recall,’ said Susan.

‘I couldn’t possibly say, but I hear that the lesser regions of the puffer fish render up a toxin most efficacious,’ said the apothecary. ‘Death comes quickly through paralysis. But beware, Miss Susan, I am told that if you give an insufficient dose the victim may appear dead but subsequently revive.’ He reached under one of the cabinets and pressed on a panel. The panel gave way, yielding its secret in the shape of a wooden board in which eight vials of a clear liquid nestled innocently. Hinton took one and handed it to her. ‘You know not from whence it came. Such poisons are understandably proscribed. Seal it and keep it safe.’

‘I understand,’ said Susan, took his hand in hers and the deal was made.

 

Secretary Thurloe smiled to himself as he read the confession, taken by proxy, of Diana Gennings. It mattered little that he had lost track of her almost as soon as she had been released. The sinecure she had negotiated for her husband had been sold within moments, on a five-year lease. It was almost as if she didn’t trust him not to pursue them, and in this he had to admit she showed impeccable judgement. It worried him a little that her behaviour also indicated a belief that he would not be interested in either her or her husband five years from now. In this he feared she might also be rather prescient as he felt the beginnings of the pain in his groin that he knew from bitter experience indicated the attempted evacuation of a kidney stone.

‘Nathaniel,’ said Thurloe.

‘Yes, master Secretary?’ replied Nathaniel.

‘I am impressed by your work with Diana,’ said Thurloe. ‘A most thorough and illuminating document.’

‘Indeed, master secretary,’ said Nathaniel. ‘It was almost as if she enjoyed betraying the conspiracy.’

‘Yes, indeed Nathaniel,’ said Thurloe, wincing as he spoke. ‘Hell hath no fury, or so they say. I’d certainly think twice before imprisoning her husband.’ The pain was increasing steadily, now fluctuating between a direct stabbing and an intense wave. ‘I fear I may be passing a stone,’ he said, his voice now quieter, more measured, as if any overly loud speech would be translated directly into pain by the small, irregular piece of calcium that was currently attempting to travel from his bladder to the outside world through a tube considerably smaller than itself. And the pressure behind it would soon build, as it had before. Several days of agony awaited him. And if the stone could not make its way, an excruciatingly painful and extremely dangerous operation would be his only chance of survival. ‘Never mind a woman scorned, for sheer furious pain nothing bar gout comes close to the stone.’ He retched. ‘Fetch me an apothecary,’ he said. ‘Fetch me John Chase.’

‘The apothecary named by Gennings?’ asked Nathaniel, as he stood and pulled on his jerkin.

‘The very same,’ said Thurloe, slowly lifting himself out of his chair. ‘Get my cot and a chamber pot, Nathaniel, I’ll not be making home this evening. And send a note for Miss Susan, also. If she’s not home, take one to my chambers. Tell her I am detained by business and will not return for supper, and so she ought not attend me. In fact,’ he said, the pain now becoming more intense, ‘tell her I have had to leave town for a few days, and to await my word.’ At this he doubled up. ‘But first, the apothecary. And be quick about it.’ Thurloe vomited into the pot Nathaniel had provided while he received instructions, and fell into the cot, pale and shaking. Nathaniel rushed out of his rooms, and down the corridor and out into the evening air.

‘Steady, Nathaniel,’ said Isaac. ‘Where’s the fire?’

‘Master Secretary sickens,’ said Nathaniel, already breathing hard. ‘I am for the apothecary.’

‘We are for the Mermaid, if you are free later,’ said Isaac.

‘Very well, but now I must fly,’ said Nathaniel. And he vanished into the dusk.

Isaac and Jonny continued along their way. In the days since they had been thrown together in Thurloe’s pet project, his black chamber, their relationship had deepened. Isaac and Jonny had formulated a sort of method, a way of going about this business of official eavesdropping. There were far too many letters for each to receive the attention necessary, so some judgement and discretion was necessary. The two of them could barely examine one in ten of the letters that presented themselves, so firstly Isaac would select them at random, slip the seal off with a sharp knife, unfold them, scan the first few lines and the last for signs of interest, with Jonny or Isaac transcribing those qualified, and all of them carefully resealed and sent on their way. He would also look for endorsements in hands they recognised or to familiar names or addresses.

‘I meant to ask about Molly,’ said Isaac.

‘What?’ said Jonny, defensively.

‘Where is she?’

‘With some dying aunt,’ said Jonny. ‘Some legacy is at stake.’ At this, Jonny grew sullen. ‘She hasn’t replied to my letters. It’s been a week. I don’t know how long she’ll be gone.’ He stopped and stared at his companion. ‘Will that suffice on this subject? I really do not want to hear another word regarding it.’ They walked on, in silence. ‘In fact, tonight I am for the Three Suns in Fleete Street. Are you with me?’

Isaac nodded and they turned right instead of left, missing Nathaniel goading the apothecary Chase into walking yet faster and faster.

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