The Alchemist's Daughter, Chapter Two

(Reasonably pleased with this chapter. …At the moment.)

Sir Kingsley has been sitting in his library with Tom Hawkins the poet. Not a proper library, as he is all too aware; not like the library he has designed for the new house in Holborn, which is almost finished. This is a large and perfectly well appointed parlour in which books have been piling up for several years now, rising up to the coffered ceiling, giving the room the air of an inner shrine in some decaying, disreputable temple. Hawkins, always the man for an early start, is sitting with a volume of Latin verse on his lap and a horn cup of cock ale in his hand, talking too much, of course, to have drunk more than a quarter, while Sir Kingsley Paget is on his second cup and looking forward to the third. He has overseen the brewing of it and had even selected the cockerel himself from the hundreds of birds crammed into wicker prisons at Smithfield Market. A big, old bird starting to get scrawny and thin of feather but still plainly a fighter. He had admired its muscular legs and the unusually long, curving sickles of its spurs. Later, in the kitchen, he had thought it only fair to wring its neck himself, and it had laid open his wrist as it thrashed out the dregs of its life. He had approved. That had been two months ago, and the bird, roasted, pounded with raisins, dates, mace and nutmegs and soaked in sherry sack before being added to a barrel of fermenting ale, has vanished, at least corporeally. Its essential nature still lingers, however: pugnacious, sharp and sinewed; and it is this ethereal presence that Sir Kingsley Paget has been exploring on his palate as his friend launches into another of his expert but somewhat familiar observations on the Horatian ode. It is undeniable, he thinks, that one can capture such presences, and not just the virtues such as they exist in a tincture of some herb or mineral. What is presence, exactly? What is the essence of a thing? Where does it reside? These are all more intriguing things to ponder than Horace, but just then Hawkins taps his finger with authority on the page of his book and Kingsley nods, not exactly listening: just so, just so

“Drink, Tom. You have a drawn look about you,” he says. The older man grunts, sips absentmindedly. “Your love for Horace is commendable, my dear fellow, but is it not a little early for verse? I have some Paracelsus for us to worry over.”

Quare et vos suffocata mihi in tuis querentes? Why do you stifle me with your complaining?” Hawkins quotes amiably, and Kingsley has just opened his mouth to protest that he is hardly Maecenas (and that Tom Hawkins is merely the translator of the Roman bard, not the bard himself) when a fusillade of knocking sounds on the door, followed immediately by a furious rattling of the old door latch.

He frowns, drains his cup and turns with mild irritation. “What is it?” he barks. One of the servants, Hettie or Hester – his wife can remember, though he cannot – is new and so far ill-trained, which deficiency, coupled with a forceful nature, makes for a discordant operation of the household. But it is not Hester who appears in the doorway. Chandler the major-domo stands there, with Mary, his wife’s maidservant, bobbing feverishly behind him. She is flushed and her hair is disordered. Chandler, by contrast, is bone-white, so pale that the lines on his face seem to float in the air in front of it. 

“Might I ask…” Kingsley has already resigned himself to dealing with some small misfortune, and is reaching for the jug of cock ale when Chandler interrupts him.

“Lady Lucretia, sir. Oh, sir…”

“Has she returned from her ride? She said she would join Sir Thomas and me when she came in.”

“She… She did not go for her ride, Sir Kingsley,” stammers Chandler. He is tying his fingers into knots, but no-one is paying him any heed. Thomas Hawkins is still scanning the verses of Horace and his master is sipping the froth from his ale. It is Mary who pushes past him and stands in the middle of the carpet, in this room where she hardly ever goes, surrounded by crooked pillars of leather and gilding. Her voice is cracked and comes out much too loud.

“My lady did not wake up! We cannot rouse her, sir!”

“Then let her sleep! Would that not be the Christian thing to do?” Kingsley is not often involved in the basic stuff of domesticity.

“She will not wake, sir. She will not! Oh, mercy, my lord! You must come at once!”

“Will not wake?” Kingsley turns in his chair. The words do not make sense to him. Indeed, they have several senses, and he realises he is expected to know which one pertains. 

“Never again! My poor lady! Never again…”

“That’s enough, Mary!” snaps Chandler, his composure so completely vanished that his voice has lost its gentleman’s polish and reverted to the rough accent of Shoreditch. “My lord, I must entreat you to come at once to your wife’s chamber.”

“Oh, very well.” Kingsley rises, feeling somewhat angry at being used in such a way by these servants in front of his guest. But his habitual good nature stifles the anger and all he is left with is irritation and a certain unease. “If you will excuse me, Tom?”

“Of course, of course.” Tom Hawkins is far too engrossed in Horatian stanzas to even raise his head.

Kingsley follows the two servants out of the room and up the stairs. The ale had been good and strong: his legs feel pleasantly loose in the joints and there is a warmth in his chest. Perhaps, he thinks, that is why he is being so patient with Chandler. The door to his wife’s room is ajar and the new maid – Hester or Hettie, is standing half in and half out. Chandler and Mary stop in front of the door and Kingsley almost trips over them.

“Come now,” he mutters, pushing open the door and remembering to bend his head, because he is properly tall and the house was built when men were of shorter stature. He has spent his life with a bruised forehead, though at the age of thirty he is finally getting the hang of doorways. He straightens up and frowns, because the room is dark, the heavy curtains still drawn, and there is Lucretia, still in bed. He steps closer. There is a faint smile on her face, he thinks, and the ale gives a little surge of warmth, a tiny nudge of delicious anticipation. A jest, then. All is clear. A woman’s jests are one of life’s finest pleasures, and the jests of a clever woman, such as his dearest Lucretia might concoct for his delight…

“Lucretia? Good morning, my love.” He says it gently, expecting to see her eyelids twitch, her lips to curl up into her own divine smile. Instead he hears an out surge of breath behind him, words catching in someone’s throat, feet hurrying out of the room and down the stairs.

“Lucretia?” He steps to the edge of the bed, stoops beneath the heavy crimson velvet drapery. She is so pale. In this bad light it is hard for him to see where her skin ends and the white linen of her nightdress, of the sheets and bolster cover, begins. She is lying on her back, her face turned away from him, resting on her right hand. Her left eye is open ever so slightly. So she is watching him after all! He chuckles fondly and brushes her cheek with the back of his fingers.

It is bitterly cold. The shock of it makes his whole arm clench. “Don’t be so silly, my love,” he says, nervously, and bends down to her, cupping his beard in his hand, because she sometimes scolds him for the way it tickles. With the other hand he touches her brow. It is hard beneath his palm, which prickles as if he has touched frost. Her eye shows a narrow sickle of white and a fine line of grey iris. It is quite still. He extends a suddenly reluctant finger and touches it to the delicate fringe of her eyelash. There is no response. At that, he knows. Though he will not let the word even flicker into his thoughts for hours yet, he knows what he has found. He has seen it often enough but not like this. He never thought to find it settled in his bed, though often enough he had wondered how it would find him. An easy death, the soul departed in the night like a dishonest guest, leaving the servants to discover the empty husk in the morning. And he had wished, if he wished at all, that he should be taken first, because the thought of this… the thought of this…

He opens his eyes and sees the painted boards of the ceiling. He smells the strangely comforting mustiness of the thick Turkey rug on which he is stretched out to his full length. Someone is still pulling on his legs. He raises his head and meets the apologetic eyes of Tom Hawkins.

“My good fellow,” says his guest, and trails off, lowers his head. He hears sobbing above and away from him. There is a spider’s web bisecting one of the square coffers of the ceiling, with a large, pallid, thin-legged spider working in one corner, patiently attaching threads to the red petals of a painted rose.

“A doctor,” says Kingsley, struggling up onto his elbows. “Call for a doctor.”

“He has been fetched,” says Tom. Who adds, gently and precisely, “And a priest as well.”

“No need for a priest!” says Kingsley. He rises, crouches, feeling his long arms and legs to be strangely monstrous, like those of the spider above him. “A doctor will suffice.” But he knows, from the way the air seems to tighten around him, thick with the discomfort and the pity of those who are standing there, that it is the priest and not the doctor who will find employment this morning. He does not stand, but half crawls, half collapses against the bed, where he carefully lowers his high, wide forehead onto the sheet. He smells lavender, and the scorch of the iron.

He is hunched there when the doctor arrives, the doctor who does not need to waste more than one minute on his diagnosis. One touch of Lady Lucretia’s brow is enough. The doctor meets the priest on the stairs and they murmur together, two men in dark clothes for whom this is terribly ordinary. Whatever is said, the priest’s face seems to brighten, though there is no-one else to see it. The priest goes on up the stairs. He had been having a pleasant morning in his study, as pleasant as the hangover he was nursing had allowed. A trim man with fashionably long hair and a pointed beard in imitation of the king, the Reverend Edward Finch is a friend of Sir Kingsley. He shares with him an interest in church practices even higher than Archbishop Laud will allow, though unlike Kingsley he is not a secret Catholic (Mr Finch guesses this, though he has no evidence, and secretly he approves. He feels the tug of Rome’s moon in his own spiritual waters). He should not have taken so much wine last night, he is thinking, as he allows Chandler to open the bedchamber door for him and goes inside.

There is nothing Mr Finch can do. The servant who came running to fetch him, sprinting all the way to Christ Church in Newgate Street, informed him in a torrent of disjointed words that there had been a death at the house of Sir Kingsley Paget. He did not seem to know, or was too afraid to say, if it was his master or mistress who had died. But the doctor had whispered the necessary information to him on the stairs. A dreadful shame, Finch mumbles to himself. Lady Paget had been a beautiful woman, and rather extraordinary in her way. She had certainly held some strong enchantment – Finch’s thoughts are poetical, not literal: he might believe in witches, but would not seek them in Charterhouse Yard – over her equally extraordinary husband, the man who now lies like a broken toy across her deathbed. She was an open Catholic, though, as all of London knew. Mr Finch is the wrong sort of priest. He can have no dealings with this corpse. But he can give support to the living. He kneels beside Kingsley and whispers some words of comfort to him, words that have served him well in such situations, but he might as well be talking to a wooden effigy: the man seems as lifeless as his wife.

It is Thomas Hawkins who sends a messenger to Somerset House with a note for the queen’s chaplain. He is another Catholic, though a very private one, and is careful to let Mr Finch know who will be arriving. The curate is grateful and shakes the poet’s hand, but this is as much as his Anglican conscience, such as it is, will allow, and he is not there when the confessor, a grey, compact Scot, arrives. Father Robert Philip knows Kingsley well, having been Lady Paget’s confessor, but the priest gets no words from him, save a muffled command not to move his wife’s body. Father Robert finds this commendably sentimental, as the poor woman does look undeniably peaceful, as if deeply asleep, so he applies the holy oil, mutters the Eucharist (though strictly speaking it is too late for that) and blesses the body before leaving the house quietly – so quietly, in fact, that no-one is quite sure that he was ever there. Father Robert has ministered to the dying in far more dangerous times than this, but even now, with a Catholic queen in England, priests know how to make themselves invisible.

When Kingsley finally raises his head, his servants, and those friends and acquaintances summoned by the rumours that are already abroad in the city, leave off their whispering and gather around him. He regards the crowd with wide, unfocussed eyes, blinks, coughs.

“If someone would call on Master Rincke at his house in Blackfriars,” he says, his voice hoarse but steady, “And tell him that I would be obliged by his company?”

There are whispers at that. Johann Rincke is famous. The ladies – there are one or two – feel a certain frisson, as the painter is reputed to be a handsome man and in any case his work is the very height of fashion. Some of the whispers, however, are not approving. First a Catholic priest – shameless, the way these Papists go about in broad daylight these days. But this is not said aloud, so as not to offend the dead woman’s spirit which, some are thinking, cannot be very approving of her husband’s behaviour. And now a Catholic painter. A painter! Bereaved or not, is this the behaviour of a gentleman? Where are the women to wash the corpse, lay it out? Where is the coffin maker? Flowers are needed, and candles… And now, Christ’s blood, the man is calling for the curtains to be opened!

By the time the painter arrives, the house is getting quite full. It is May Day, and people are in a festive mood. A death, if it is not one’s own, is always a fine diversion. Some have come to pay their solemn respects, others to have a look at the famous Lady Lucretia in her final sleep, and at Sir Kingsley, the privateer, the fighter of duels, the alchemist. Some are just hoping for a jug of ale. They, together with the merely curious, have been politely ejected by Chandler, who, now that the first shock of discovery has worn off, knows how to handle an occasion. Friends of Kingsley are poking around in the makeshift library, gossiping on the stairs, drinking in the hall. Thomas Hawkins has remained with Kingsley, answering questions, keeping people he does not recognise – as he is not a particularly sociable man, this is a greater part of the uninvited guests – away from the bed and his friend. Johann Rincke, with two curious young assistants in tow, nods and bows his way politely and expertly to the bedchamber. He finds Kingsley animated, his huge frame lurching awkwardly, with too much forced enthusiasm, through the task of replacing the heavy crimson drapes of the bed with blue velvet. This is a job for a servant, but he will not let them near the bed and besides, he is tall enough to do it without standing on a chair. The velvet is new, bought to the house by a nervous haberdasher in puritan garb who keeps eyeing the dead woman as if some Popish devilry will cause her to raise up and bite him. He is not, however, above making several suggestions for the draping of a coffin and is finally got rid of with coin and promises of further custom. The velvet rises and falls, trembles and settles, catching the light in cascades of silver. Rincke circles the bed quietly.

“I want you to paint her, Johann.” Kingsley is finished with the drapery, and now, with nothing to occupy him, he feels he is turning back into the huge, pale spider, his very own allegory of despair. He stands by the window, aware of the sunlight outside, the fresh green of the spring trees, the noisy birds, but the window panes cut him off like sheets of ice from all of that. He is in here, in the dead place. His friend the painter, he knows, wants to comfort him, but that is not why he was summoned. “Will you do it?”

“Of course, of course,” says the painter, because it is what Kingsley wants to hear. But he is thinking, paint the dead? I never have. I do not wish to, and in any case, how? The habits of the English are still quite strange to him. In Holland they do not, as a rule, paint corpses, but since coming to England he has been shown several mawkish depictions of dead worthies, done in the flat, antiquated and honestly primitive manner of the last century. His feeling, from having studied these unlovely things, is that they are a vulgar form of still-life, and that dead people have much less intrinsic interest than dead rabbits or pheasants which, coupled with a bowl of fruit or a cheese, a scattering of nuts and leaves, can look rather magnificent, show off the painter’s skill, or at the very least set one to planning one’s next meal. But these deathbed still-lives are nothing but a pointer to that final meal when one is oneself the ingredient and the dish. Still, he cannot refuse a friend. 

“When Lady Lucretia is laid out, yes?” he says, picturing the style in his mind: the corpse trussed in frilled grave clothes, chin bound, covers drawn up, pale hand on bible or cross, the bed linen folded into sharp lines and angles. The Paget coat of arms displayed tastefully overhead. A skull, perhaps, in case one might have missed the point.

“No. Like this. As she was found. As she was taken from me.”

Rincke cannot come back that day. He has a sitter, a grey-haired, ponderous soldier who wants to be painted with his Indian servant. He assumes – hopes, rather urgently, in fact – that this will disqualify him from his friend’s morbid commission. But Kingsley simply shrugs.

“Tomorrow, then.”

The day passes quickly for Rincke. His sitter proves to be far more entertaining than expected: garrulous, sharp-witted and far from ponderous, the Earl of Launceston arrives dressed in Moghul silk with a young Indian carrying a slender and expensive musket. They spend much of their time drinking and discussing how the painting is to be composed. The earl has recently returned from India, where he brought letters from King Charles to the Great Moghul. Rincke presses him for descriptions of barbarous magnificence, but the earl instead tells him of how he went into the wild forest in search of things to shoot and became hopelessly lost. It is this very servant – the boy now sitting tailor-fashion in a corner of the studio, rocking slightly with boredom – who brought him to safety. Over more wine they decide that this is the scene that should be depicted. No painting is done, but a plan is drawn up: props must be found, the earl and his boy will return in two days’ time. Launceston raises an eyebrow when he hears that he has been thrown over for a corpse, but then they go back to discussing the terrifying lushness of the Indian forest, and the curious habits of the natives, and Rincke forgets all about the dead woman in Charterhouse Yard.

The Alchemist's Daughter

I’ve been working on a novel for a few years, off and on. I like the deep structure but it needs a complete rewrite and, as if by magic, I suddenly have a possibly unlimited amount of time on my hands, as my day job as a chef has abruptly ended.

I thought I’d post a chapter as and when I re-do it. Trigger warnings: it is extremely dark in places but is NOT about plagues or anything like that.

The formatting will improve as I re-learn this platform.

I hope you enjoy it…

A Novel In The Time of Covid: The Alchemist's Daughter

Chapter One

The milkmaids are preparing for the dance. In rutted lanes, ducking with nervous laughter as late-to-bed bats flit in and out of the blackthorn hedges, they tie ribbons in each other’s plaited hair, pick cow parsley and dog roses and campion for garlands. Their men, those who could be bothered to stir themselves at such an unchristian hour, are murmuring to each other in little knots, unimportant for once. The first pipes of the day are lit and sweet smoke billows and rises. Young girls and older women peer at each other’s faces as they straighten ribbons, push in a flower, searching for what they once were, what they will become, and the darkness hides their feelings: envy, regret, relief. There is laughter. Down the hill, the lights of the city make dim, fragile spider webs: lamps along the streets where the rich folk live, candles in upstairs windows as servants wake up; lanterns on wagons and carriages. A blackbird starts to sing in the hedge. It is May Day.

Someone gives a sign and the women lift their yokes of polished wood onto their shoulders. The pails are empty today and the yokes are no burden but still the women mutter and curse out of habit as the wood settles onto their broad, hard backs. Down the lane they go, heavy petticoats swaying and sweeping the dust. They are going to walk beside the Fleet River and dance their first dance of the day in Charterhouse Yard.

Cattle are lowing and crying hollowly in Smithfield and drovers are yelling above the clatter of hooves in Aldersgate Street. But Charterhouse Yard is quiet and content in the dark. The nightly drunkards, taking the boozy shortcut between Drury Lane and Smithfield, have all passed through and now there are only cats under the clipped trees that criss-cross the ancient square. In one of the fine houses a woman turns over in bed. Half-waking she becomes aware of the absence beside her: the large frame of her husband is not there. She remembers: a late night, and he had promised to sleep in his dressing chamber so as not to wake her. She smiles, and the pleasant effort of it sends her back to sleep straight away, turned towards the considerate absence of the man, her cheek cupped in her hand, her dark brown curls settling onto the white linen that smells, very faintly, of scorching iron and lavender.

Across the city wall in Angel Street, another woman is in bed with an empty place next to her. But her husband is downstairs drinking wine and scuffing the floor with his boot in a mild panic, because his wife is giving birth. It is an easy one, says the midwife, the same who delivered the first one, the difficult one, always difficult and now lying under stone in Christ Church. Still the woman grunts and sweats, the linen sopping beneath her, clinging to the long furrow of her spine and her plump backside. The laces of her coif are digging into her straining neck and she scrabbles at the knot, tearing the stitching clean off. She balls up the damp, greasy cloth and jams it between her teeth as the midwife barks at her to push, there’s a good girl, don’t be lazy, don’t be a lump. The midwife slaps the straining woman’s hand away from where it has strayed to the perfect dome of her belly, squints through the dim yellow candlelight, sees flesh part for a sleek black head. The woman screams and a puckered brow, two screwed up eyes and a nub of a nose appear. Push, you great cow. Push it out, for the love of God! She pushes. The midwife’s hard fingers grasp at the little creature, slide around the tiny neck and under the arms. Push, you clever girl!

In Charterhouse Yard, the sleeping woman dreams of a glass, a wonderful goblet which she holds in her cupped hands. A thin stream of garnet-red wine is falling straight down from far above her, thin as a silken thread, into the clear bowl. She watches it fill, and as the liquid rises so the wine becomes redder and more beautiful, as red as the ruby her husband brought her from Scanderoon, as red as the setting sun. There is something in the depths of the glass: a rose? A flower, she thinks, a damask rose, a tight maze of petals. And the stream falls in a perfect line from heaven and fills the bowl, fills it to the rim and over the rim, so that the redness, held by the glass lip, bulges and catches her reflection. The wine domes impossibly, rising to meet the falling thread until she is holding a great red spike in her hands, trembling where its motion holds the light. Her fingers are smooth and perfectly white against the glass. She looks into the heart of the wine. It isn’t a flower after all, but something else. Not petals, but a maze indeed: streets, walls, houses, church spires.

“Oh!” she says in wonder. The thrill makes her fingers tighten minutely against the shell of glass. It shatters, and as it breaks she finds that she had expected it to happen, but not that the wine would still hang there, a great red drop suspended by a single thread of liquid from some impossible height. The broken glass dissolves into the flesh of her hand. She feels it come into her like the cold from a frosted windowpane. And then there is a sudden feeling of vastness, of the immense space above her, the measureless dome of absence through which is falling a single thread of garnet-red wine. The weight of it all is too much. She lifts her head to look up, and the thing in her hands turns to hot liquid that engulfs her.

The dark curls do not move on the white pillow. They fan out from beneath her nightcap, across the pale curve of her neck. Her hand is still beneath her cheek. One eye has opened slightly, but it doesn’t see the faint gold of false dawn, just enough light to show the furrow in the bed next to her where her husband ought to be. She will not hear the milkmaids of Islington dance into the Yard, singing and clashing their burnished pails. She will not turn to wish her maid good morning, and she will not see her husband, the big man, fall onto the Turkey rug with a crash that will set the curtains of her deathbed quivering.