Chapter 4 - The Bishop of the Northern Marches by A.J. Hall
“Another one.” Sarai said grimly. She held her lantern so John could see the dull, red rash spreading across the corpse’s chest, down his trunk and out onto the limbs. John nodded, bent, and extended a gentle thumb to draw down the lids over the sunken, staring eyes. He turned to the orderlies.
“Carry him out.” John pinched his nostrils at the reek of gangrenous flesh which rose from the heaving straw. He picked up his own lantern and pushed further back into the warren of interconnecting dungeons. Yellow hands clawed at him; skull-like faces shrank back, moaning pitiably as the feeble lantern beams stabbed at their over-sensitised eyes. Here and there a glimpse of damp, black curls (crawling with vermin, inevitably, in this crowded Purgatorio) or of high, sharp cheekbones would, briefly, send agonies of fear tingling down his nerves, only for a closer look to drive him back to the dull, unspeakable, unending grind of dread. And they had, of course, no evidence Sherlock had ever been here; just references to a strange livery and whispered hints as to what caused men to vanish without trace in this city.
“John! Here!” Sarai’s voice cut through the foetid, chill fog of the dungeon. He almost tripped in his haste, but the skinny, grey-haired figure in the straw was a world away from what he had hoped to see. Except –
Clasped in that slight, insignificant hand was a rosary – impossibly fine for anything that could have escaped the turnkeys’ grasping hands, absent a conjuring trick, or a miracle. Or the application of an infinitely ingenious brain. Walrus ivory, the bead marking each decade carved in the fashion of a musical instrument; little fiddles, hautboys, lutes all complete.
“You bastard! You thief!”
It was only when he felt Sarai’s hand biting into his arm that he backed away a foot or so from the frail, wracked figure on his straw pallet, recalled to his vocation in a blinding storm of shame.
“Not a thief. ” The grey-haired man’s voice was a thread in the darkness, febrile and rapid. He broke off speaking to cough. They all – the two doctors, the hovering orderlies – waited for him to finish. In a feeble gesture of all-but forgotten gentility he raised the back of his hand – the hand holding the rosary – to brush his lips clean of spittle before he continued. His voice had the sing-song cadence of a man on the edge of delirium, clinging to lucidity by an act of will.
“In the night, in my agony, I called upon the blessed Cecilia – I was born on the twenty second day of November – they named me Cecil in her honour – and he thrust his own rosary into my hands. He said there was no God, but if it made an idiot pass easier then my need was more than his and perhaps it might shut me up so he could sleep.”
John had taken wounds to the chest that cut less deep. “And then? Good God, man. What then?”
Cecil’s head dropped back against Sarai’s leather clad knee. His eyes were dulling, but with one last flicker of consciousness he murmured, “They came and took him. Far from here.”
John unlocked the shackle around Cecil’s ankle, hissing in disgust at the raw sore it had eroded in the small man’s flesh. How long had the poor bastard been here, rotting abandoned in the noisome dark?
He nodded to the orderlies. “Take him out. Ensure he has the best of care. And then – do for the rest as their need suggests. We’re needed elsewhere.”
“And what, pray, is the meaning of this outrage?”
The Bishop stood on the threshold of his dungeon, holding a nosegay delicately to his nostrils in a gesture more symbolic than effectual. The orderlies – battle-hardened men who feared neither God nor devil and only accorded grudging respect to ordnance – did not break step as they approached the threshold, Cecil moaning and tossing on the makeshift stretcher they carried.
“Mind your back, m’Lord. Casualty coming through.”
The Bishop paused, as if considering barring them passage, and then made a sideways step, leaving them just enough space for them to squeeze through. He did not deign to acknowledge them as they passed over the threshold and out towards the daylight.
“A work of charity, my Lord.” Sarai voice was as musical as a flute and as deadly as honed steel. The Bishop’s eyes passed over her as if she were invisible and focussed on John.
“We learnt of an epidemic of gaol fever, my Lord. I owe a special dedication to St Luke –who was both a physician and a some-time prisoner. We came here to relieve the prisoners’ distress to the best of our ability.”
Bland, professional – an officer reporting to one of equivalent rank.
“Gaol fever.” The Bishop raised his nosegay to his nostrils and inhaled. “And we are, indeed, in a gaol. I do not suppose a physician finds much time to study the Platonists, but surely the name indicates that it is an affliction proper to the location?”
John buried his clenched fist in the folds of his gown. They were inside the Bishop’s own palace – in his very dungeons, for that matter. Striking him now would be a supremely ill-judged move. Especially if he had concealed Sherlock somewhere for his own dark purposes. He schooled his voice and features to dispassion.
“And of army camps So, over my career, I have paid particular attention to the disease. And discovered that with proper precautions and – management – both its incidence and its severity can be greatly reduced.”
“Gondalian gaols. Gondalian army camps.” The Bishop’s lip curled in contempt. “You’re not in Gondal now, surgeon.”
John let his gaze travel round the flickering, ill-lit dungeons; the yellowing, emaciated prisoners, hunched and listless in the filthy straw or frantically straining against their shackles in an extremity of fever.
“Evidently. My Lord.”
The Bishop inhaled, sharply, The two men-at-arms behind him fingered their weapons, as if awaiting the word to strike. And then a slender, black garbed man, with the harassed air and ink-stained hands of some secretary or confidential clerk, appeared in the doorway, swallowed, hard, and said, “My Lord Bishop? Might I have the favour of a word? It is on a matter of the utmost urgency.”
Reluctantly, the Bishop nodded. The two men withdrew from the dungeon, while the men-at-arms closed up the doorway, presenting arms across and barring John and Sarai’s departure.
John sighed. “If you are determined to keep us here, I trust you will have no objection if we continue to do our duties?”
The two soldiers exchanged glances. The taller, a grizzled-haired veteran, nodded, grudgingly. “Don’t see why you’re bothering. If the shit-shaggers survive, they’ll be looking at the stake. In their place, I’d settle for gaol fever.”
Cold fear stabbed in his guts. He held his voice steady. “I’ll remind you, none of the prisoners here have been convicted of any crime. They await the judgment of the Consistory Court. Even if found guilty, their further disposition depends on the civil power. And the King has let it be known – even in the case of proven sodomy – neither he nor any of his lieutenants will sign a death warrant in cases where the parties are consenting and of full age and capacity.”
“Kings can change – “
“Their minds,” the Bishop completed smoothly, reappearing in the doorway.
John looked at him; really looked, as Sherlock had exhorted him years ago, trying not merely to see but to observe. Something had happened in that brief interlude. Previously the Bishop had been angry but sure of himself, handling interlopers into his fiefdom with a confident touch and a mind conscious of its own rectitude. Now, something had unbalanced him. His pose of smooth contempt was almost flawless but it was precisely that: a pose. Before his secretary had interrupted him, it had been the genuine article.
For the first time in the whole of that long, hopeless night John felt the faintest possible lift of his spirits.
“Well, it seems fate has sent a physician to me when I find myself in unexpected need of one.” The Bishop’s tone had a sour edge to it.
“Two of my turnkeys. Found stripped to their small-clothes, bound and gagged in an alley. Left there all night. They’ve been brought to my palace. Will you deign to treat them or do you reserve your compassion only for moral degenerates?”
John remarked, demurely, that his oath obliged him to treat anyone, be he prelate or gallows-fodder, regardless of his personal opinion of them. The Bishop did not take the bait, but as they left the dungeon complex he turned to look back over his shoulder at the men-at-arms.
“Throw the infidel bitch out,” he said pleasantly.
*Oysters. Millions upon millions of them, covering the sea-bed, fastening upon each other, growing into great stacks and towers, lapping up the beaches. He has climbed the tallest palm in the centre of the island and seen how the dark, grey-green serried mass of calcareous shells presses ever inwards, how the green vegetation of the interior shrinks daily, hourly beneath its encroachment. Horrible! How can it be that the entire surface of the island is not already covered in oysters?
The pain begins again, stabs along his leg. The heat laps up, searing his skin; the flesh cracks and bubbles along the lines of his veins. Agony and a blessing, both; heat will deter the oysters; they are, after all, nothing more than sea-water given jellified form and malignancy. Fire against water. Heat will combat the aqueous humours. Maybe they can fight them off long enough to plant crops and see them harvested. So the two of them might win through to see another spring.*
Cecil was dead. John returned to the big house adjoining the garrison infirmary to find Sarai hunched by the fire – she had always been a chilly mortal – a glass of distilled barley-spirit in her hand and the decanter on a low table close by. He topped up her glass and poured himself a generous measure before risking speech.
“The orderlies told me,” he said, without preamble.
“No records. No word. Nothing. I could not even send word to his loved ones, to be with him at the end –”
“Given the Bishop, don’t you think that may rather have been Cecil’s intention? Not to leave a trail that might kill someone else.”
Sarai spat, eloquently, into the fire and said something in a language John did not speak but which he could translate accurately, nonetheless. He patted her cold hand.
“Anyway, I do have some news. Someone has an even lower opinion of the Bishop’s turnkeys than we do. “
She looked up at him for the first time. “Your patients?”
“Judging by the bruises, someone kicked seventeen kinds of shit out of them late yesterday evening. Not a novice at it, either. Must have been wearing hob-nailed boots.”
“Should have been their master, instead.” Sarai took a deep swig of the barley-spirit.
“That’s coming. Anyway, what was it Cecil said about Sherlock?”
“‘They came and took him far from here,’ “Sarai quoted. “Odd. You’d hardly think they’d have announced where they were taking him – whoever they were.”
“Unless Sherlock passed Cecil a message and he was too far gone when we found him to pass it on?”
Sarai’s lips tightened; she gave a curt, acknowledging nod. “And the turnkeys? How did they end up in an alley?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to work out. How does this sound? The turnkeys come on duty yesterday evening. Most likely, they’ve spent the afternoon in the tavern already. Someone turns up – on spec or by pre-arrangement – with a cock-and-bull story of delivering comforts to a prisoner. Probably offers a bribe. By way of additional sweetener, also offers them a flask of wine. Wine stains as well as blood on their jerkins. Also, if I’m any judge of the state they were in, tincture of opium in the wine.”
“Ah.” Sarai leant forward, her eyes bright. “What happens then?”
“The now-fuddled turnkeys are ambushed, overpowered, stripped and a couple of the attackers change into their livery, so they can pass through the Bishop’s palace with less chance of being challenged. They enter the gaol and take Sherlock –”
“Where? And why? And wouldn’t he resist?”
“If the alternative was staying in that hell-hole? He couldn’t have known we’d find him before the Bishop did. Also, they may have been people he knew or had reason to trust.”
Someone was hammering on the street door, two floors below them.
“Don’t worry,” Sarai said. “One of the men will get it. Anyway, I’ve been thinking. ‘Far from here’ – could that mean ‘not from round here’? Could tht have been what Cecil meant? That they had unfamiliar accents – perhaps they were the King’s men, from the capital?”
Hope spiked before cold reality intervened. “The King’s agent in the north would have heard. If they were agents, they were of some foreign power. Angria, perhaps.”
John’s mind went, immediately, to the Pretender. If he had dared –
One of the orderlies burst into the room.
“Medical emergency. Sir. Ma’am. We have to go now.”
John asked the question, but the orderly turned to Sarai to give his answer. “It’s the Crown Prince. There’s a man below who says he’s got him. And that he’s dying.”
Sunlight; the high sun of noon-tide, falling full across his face. It shone, orange-pink, through his closed lids. The shutters of the room were open; the window, too. The sound of military drill – barked orders, marching feet in serried rows – filtered thinly up from somewhere down below. The warm summer breeze bore scents of dog roses and lavender as it brushed across his face and scalp –
Scalp. His hand stole up to feel the curls which should have been there and met only a harsh, resistant stubble. His head had been shaved – like a convicted felon or a galley slave –
Like a fever victim.
Memories came rushing back. Moving across the roof in a miasma of delirium, pushed on by sheer will-power. His thoughts swirling in senseless patterns like startled birds, out of his control. The oppressive sense of something lurking in the shadows, something he’d overlooked, a threat made concrete in the shape of three liveried bravos, all dead-fish eyes and sanctimonious jowls. The aching weight of fevered limbs as he staggered blindly into a fight he’d never sought, a fight he had to win, since by his idiot carelessness he’d staked not just himself but Charis, too –
His eyes flicked open. He took in, without surprise, the dark clad figure sitting silently behind the bed.
John. Of course. He would be here. For a moment Sherlock almost hated him for it. No postponing the fear, blame and hate his admission must provoke, then. Out and have done with it.
“I lost Charis.”
“So you kept saying. Once you became coherent enough for us to understand.” John’s voice sounded relaxed – impossibly, amused. “I think she found it rather endearing the first dozen times, but after that she felt moved to point out that she wasn’t a pair of riding gloves.”
“She’s asleep on a pallet in the next room; I finally persuaded her to go to bed half a turn of the glass ago. She was out on her feet by then.” John peered at him. “How much do you remember, after the governor’s palace?”
He cast his mind back. “Nothing since the gaol. Patchy bits before that. A jumbled, incoherent mass, lit by random flashes of idiocy.”
“I told you to get that leg seen to. It was pure luck you didn’t come down with gaol fever, on top of the wound-sickness. We spent the best part of three days worried you had.”
Sherlock pushed himself up on one elbow; sweat broke out on his forehead at the trivial exertion. John dropped to sit beside him on the bed and wrapped an arm round him. “Don’t do that to me again. Please.”
He rested his forehead against John’s chest – let himself be lulled by the soothing rhythm of the powerful heartbeat – and closed his eyes again. “Can’t promise. Sorry. But at least I’ll try not to get killed by stupidity again.”
He felt like a wrung-out rag; his brain rendered light and inconsequential as syllabub. It was, almost, a relief. Somewhere, elsewhere, the inner clockwork of Government wound on. Human chess-pieces moved into this or that position to combat this or that anticipated move by Gondal, Angria or dissident forces within the borders. Already, no doubt, there would be various cipher messages from Mycroft exhorting him to set in motion this or that machination. Top of the pile, probably, a demand for any useful intelligence he might have gained from within the Bishop’s cells. Mycroft wouldn’t actually have contrived Sherlock’s imprisonment there – probably not, at least – but he certainly wouldn’t allow himself to waste any advantage he might gain from the happenstance of Sherlock’s having fetched up there.
But for now – for a few short hours he would set aside all that. Sarai and John between them could stand between him and the realm’s importunities. Charis was safe – however badly he’d blundered at everything else, at least he’d succeeded at getting her out of the governor’s palace.
Charis. Something lurked beneath the surface of memory. He’d done something immeasurably stupid about Charis, something which would lie like a petard awaiting the gunner’s touch beneath the rock-strewn, ambiguous landscape of their marriage.
If only he could remember what.
He hoped John hadn’t exaggerated Charis’s exhaustion. Whether or not John was successfully fooling himself their current embrace represented the platonic reaction of comrades-in-arms to a close and recent brush with death, it would be exceptionally awkward if she were to walk in. Even after eight months, Sherlock knew disconcertingly little about his wife’s thought processes – worrying, given he prided himself on the ease with which he read the men and women who surrounded him. Still, one thing was certain; there was nothing like a Court upbringing for teaching an intelligent child that nine times out of ten the most salacious explanation for any given scenario was, in fact, correct. And, whatever else he didn’t know about Charis, she was not unintelligent.
“And is she all right?”
He could feel John’s amusement ripple through his body. “Perfectly. Once she wakes up, I’m sure she’ll tell you she ran exactly when you told her to and, what’s more, that she stole you from the Bishop’s cells before either we or the King’s agents managed it. She hasn’t been shy about rubbing that in, at least once your fever broke and we convinced her she wasn’t on the verge of becoming a widow, after all.”
John frowned. “There is one thing, though. She seems to have got herself into an awful state about some expenses she’d run up in getting you out of the Bishop’s gaol. She said she couldn’t face explaining them to the Comptroller of her Household. Have you any idea who Big Gertie is? And why Charis seems to have committed to underwriting massive discounts with her?”
“You must have heard of Big Gertie. Visitors usually ask for her establishment by name when they first arrive in the capital – as an attraction it ranks third, behind St Oneysimos’s shrine and the Palace menagerie. It was second, before Mycroft imported that African water-horse. Cost us no end of trouble and two men’s lives, but Royal prestige must be maintained.”
“Big Gertie the madam? How the hell can Charis have run herself into an obligation to her?”
“Speaking as a husband, I hope the answer is ‘by a finished grasp of the art of delegation.’ “
“That’s not the point. How does she even know her?”
“Oh, really, John. What do you think Charis does down at the Poor Person’s Hospital twice a week? Flower arranging?”
The silence above his head was just a little too telling. He sighed. “Tell Charis, if she wakes up before I do, that I’ll deal with any expenses she may have incurred on my behalf personally and that old stick Filbert won’t need to be troubled with knowing about a brass cent of them. And see if you can divide up the stuff that everyone’s been telling you for days needs my personal attention without fail between that which actually does need me to cast an eye over it and that which could be dealt with by a moderately competent cat.”
“And find you a moderately competent cat?” John’s arms tightened for a moment, then he released him. “Understood. Meanwhile, get some rest. Next time you wake up, you’re due for a personal audience with the person who was really responsible for getting you out of the Bishop’s cells. And I suspect you may need to brace yourself.”