A Parcel of Rogues

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A Parcel of Rogues (Historical Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
Award Category
In London, 1715, Sam Jessop asks the Huguenot artist André Dark to help him look for his runaway daughter, helped, or hindered, by Gin, a street urchin, and the fascinating and beautiful Polly Paradice, singer and woman of the town. Can they find Mary and foil a Jacobite plot before it’s too late?

“They say you are an honest man, sir! I beg of you, please help me!”

The person to whom these frantic words had been addressed seemed oddly diverted by this statement. He paused and turned, looking down with interest at the short man in the brown wig, who had accosted him amid the bustle and scurry of Long Acre. “You cannot have any knowledge of this town,” he observed caustically. “Or you would not even consider uttering such a transparent untruth.”

“My apologies, sir.” The other man was small and well-furnished, with plump round features and a blunt, jutting nose. Ever in the oil light of the lamp above them, his desperation was painfully apparent. “But they said you would help me find my daughter.”

“Your daughter?” Incredulity was plain on the taller man’s lean face. “Don’t be absurd. As well find a blade of grass in the field, or a grain of dust in the street. London is full of daughters, and every last one of them urgent not to be found. You are wasting your time, and mine. Good day to you, sir.” He began to move on, and found his way obstructed.

“But they said in that coffee house that you would help me.” His inquisitor had boldly laid thick stubby fingers on the other man’s coat sleeve. “They assured me that you would help, and when they pointed you out to me as you passed by, it seemed like a gift from Heaven. I beg you, sir, you are my last hope of finding my sweet little Mary, and I will pay you handsomely if you do!”

A crowd of Mohocks, loud, swaggering, violent, were surging down the street towards them, pushing passers-by aside, offering assault to anyone who blocked their path. He should have left the little provincial to their brutal mercy and gone on, to tavern or coffee house and then back to his lodgings, back to his empty, selfish life where there was no desire to help anyone, or to find missing children. But something made him pause, the offer of money perhaps, or an impulse more admirable: and on such whims, sometimes, the course of one life or many may depend.

“Quick, stand back!” He pulled the little man close in to the side of the street as the gang of Mohocks swept past, already bully-drunk, hands on swords, boasting loudly of the whores they were going to debauch, the heroic quantities of spirits they planned to consume that evening, and the men they would kill if thwarted. “This is no place to talk. I know somewhere close by that’s quiet, and private, and safe.” A sudden, quizzical glance caught Mary’s father by surprise. “And if this is to progress beyond idle words, I had better know your name.”

“It’s Jessop. Samuel Jessop of Oxford, humbly at your service, sir.”

“Au contraire, Mr. Jessop – shouldn’t that be the reverse? My name is André Dark, and I, sir, am surely at your service.” A quick lift of his dark eyebrows and a quirk of the long mouth lent warmth and humour to the tall man’s rather severe features. “But enough of this idle banter – let us be gone. And for God’s sake keep close, or you’ll be lost.”

Although darkness was already dropping over the rooftops of Covent Garden, light poured from the windows of the taverns, shops and coffee houses which gave this part of London its life, and its reputation. The teeming throngs of people clogged the pavements while carriages, carts and sedans jostled past each other in the street. Sam Jessop followed Dark as nearly as he could, afraid of becoming separated in the crush. Ahead of them the Mohocks, braying with malevolent enthusiasm, were getting their evening’s entertainment off to a good start by taking it in turns to kick a beggar, while decent men and women hurried by, averting their gaze. All at once, Jessop’s frustration and anger crystallised into a single, white-hot spear of rage. Inflamed by the gross unfairness of it, he put his hand on his sword.

Fortunately, his companion had glanced back and divined the reason for Jessop’s pause. “Don’t even consider it – they’d slit your nose for fun and throw you under a wagon. This way – down here.”

Somewhat to his confusion, Jessop found himself ushered into what at first appeared to be the doorway to a tavern called The Bird In Hand. Instead, it led into a narrow alley, almost entirely dark save for one or two lamps lit by public-spirited citizens. Above them, roofs, chimneys and gables all but crowded out the dim blue of the evening sky. Things stirred and rustled in the shadows. Suddenly beset by fears of robbery or worse, Jessop said sharply, “Where is this?”

“Conduit Court. I was on my way here when you stopped me – it’s as good a place as any for our talk. Have you got four shillings on you?”

“Yes,” said Jessop, wondering in bewilderment what it might be needed for: ale, wine, spirits, a meal, a woman? All sorts of lurid imaginings coursed through his mind, heightened by the days he had already spent in London on his vain search. He opened his mouth to ask, and found that they had stopped in front of an anonymous door. The tall man rapped briefly on the knocker, and it was opened almost immediately by a very thin, elderly person whose face seemed to consist entirely of nose and chin. Between the two, his mouth split into a wide smile. “Ah, Monsieur Dark! Bon soir, monsieur, bon soir!”

Jessop stared at the two men with deep suspicion. Was this a nest of perfidious Frenchies, spying for the wicked Papist King Louis? He wished fervently that he had never gone in search of the black-clad man called Dark, who had seemed as English as himself, but who was now jabbering away in that filthy incomprehensible tongue as if he were a subject of England’s greatest enemy. He took a step backwards, but the movement returned Dark’s attention to him. “Don’t go away, Mr. Jessop,” he said, with a smile that Sam did not trust. “Fear not, we are all good servants of King George, in this place at least. Jean Chaboner is a friend of mine. He’ll look after us.”

“Indeed I will, sir, indeed I will,” said the man Chaboner, in good but accented English, and with a respectful bow. “Would you both come this way, sirs? We are not busy this evening, and there is a bath waiting. Will you have the sweat first?”

With alarm, Jessop realised that they must be in a bagnio. He had heard of such places, ostensibly establishments where you could sweat away your ill-humours and diseases in hot rooms and hotter baths. He had also heard that very often these places were not as respectable as they pretended, being little better than brothels. He looked about him, but there seemed to be no stray women lurking in the entrance hall in which they stood. It was well-lit, with a fine gilt-framed mirror above the marble mantelpiece, and although this September had so far been comparatively mild, there was a fire glowing hot in the grate. He felt perspiration beginning to prickle at the back of his neck, under his wig.

“Are you game for this, Mr. Jessop?” Dark asked him, a glint in his eyes that made Sam even more uneasy. “It’s five shillings for one, but with two of us sharing it’ll be four apiece. Do you want to be cupped as well?”

“Eh? No, no thank you,” said Jessop, rather more emphatically than was proper. At the best of times, the prospect of having blood let was unpleasant. Now, in these strange, disturbing surroundings, in company with a man quite unlike anyone he had met before, he wanted all his wits about him.

The old Frenchman conducted them along a passage and into a small, even hotter room with rows of pegs around the walls, from some of which hung discarded clothes. Another servant appeared, much younger, and with a round, pleasant face, full of eagerness to please. He helped Jessop to undress, while Chaboner assisted his companion. Perhaps Dark was conscious of Sam’s earlier suspicion, for the two men were now conversing amicably in English, about the recent trial of a notorious pickpocket.

Sam had long ago come to terms with the defects and limitations of his own body, but even so, this disrobing in front of strangers made him feel uncomfortable. He was acutely aware of his scrawny legs and prominent paunch, the results of a life spent eating too much and exercising too little, and the fact that most men of his age and station were in the same boat did not help now. He glanced covertly at Dark, noting with envious regret the tall man’s lean physique and the absence of any flabby signs of idle living. Without his plain campaign wig, his face beneath the nap of cut brown hair looked surprisingly young. Then Sam’s curious gaze wandered lower, and he struggled to suppress a gasp of surprise. A long, hideously puckered scar ran diagonally across Dark’s chest, from the top of his left shoulder to a point just above his right hipbone. It must have been a glancing blow: anything deeper would surely have disembowelled him. Sam swallowed, feeling sickened by the thought of what his companion must have suffered. And surely, a wound such as that could only have been inflicted by a sword wielded with murderous intent: either in battle, or in a duel.

Dark had seen him looking: his mouth twitched, in baffling amusement. Sam, who would never have exposed such a scar to anyone save his wife, if poor Susan had still been alive, felt himself redden with embarrassment and shame, and hastily turned away. The young servant handed him a brief linen clout, which barely encircled his generous waist, and left him feeling almost naked. Dark, being constructed more sparely, was also more comprehensively covered.

“Do you wish to be cupped, sir?” the young man asked eagerly. “We use the easiest method, with a special scarifier, so that you’d hardly know it had been done. If you’ve any old injury, or aches and pains that poultices or plasters won’t cure, you’ll find that a good sweat, and a cupping to draw out all the bad blood, will make you good as new.”

“Don’t listen to Will,” Dark’s dry amused voice intervened. “I think he must be a secret blood-drinker, he’s so eager to take it. For my part, I mean to hoard all mine to myself. A sweat, a rub and a boiling hot bath will do just as well. Are you ready, Jessop? Then let us go and be baked.”

“You will need these, sir, don’t forget,” said Chaboner, and gave Sam a curious pair of shoes with thick wooden soles, a little like the pattens which country women wore to lift their feet out of the mud.

“The floor’s hot,” Dark told him, taking pity on his bewilderment. “So hot the soles of your feet will be burnt if you don’t wear them. Even if they are a little on the large side.”

Feeling more than a touch ridiculous, his clumsily shod feet clacking like a loom, Sam shuffled towards the doorway where the young servant waited, his hand on the knob. Then he opened the door with a flourish, and a scorching blast struck them like a wall. Sam gasped, and wavered.

“You’ll be all right, sir,” Chaboner advised him kindly. “It will feel cooler after a few minutes. Soi vite, young Will, don’t stand there with the door open letting all the heat out, show the gentlemen in!”

His lungs labouring to suck in any breath of usable air, his pores flooding sweat, Sam stumbled past the servant Will, and into the next room. There were, he was glad to see, two wooden benches against the further wall, with a neat stack of folded linen on one of them. Gratefully, he staggered over, sank down and put his streaming head in his hands, wondering if he were about to die.

Beside him, the wood creaked and settled under someone else’s weight, and Dark’s voice, still carrying that unholy thread of amusement, sounded in Sam’s ear. “Jean’s right, you know – in a moment or two you’ll be used to it.”

His head was swimming, and he seemed to have lost all sense of who and where he was. Dark added conversationally, “And if you think this is tropical, wait until Will stokes up the furnace. Infernal, I believe, is the only word for it. Then once we’ve worked up a good sweat, Jean will rub us down. Feeling better yet?”

“No,” Sam gasped. “What have you got against me, that you put me to the torture like this?” He found, to his astonishment, that some powers of thought were returning to him, and that he could breathe a little easier.

“I have a grave dislike of any man who comes from Oxford,” said Dark solemnly. “Any I meet are instantly subjected to the sweat, so that their ill-humours may be washed out of them.”

Relieved that he did not appear to be about to die after all, Sam mustered a contemptuous snort. He looked up with some care, and saw his companion’s thin face quite close to his own. Dark’s eyes, he noticed, were a flecked greenish brown, surprisingly light in his tanned face, and Sam was vengefully pleased to observe that his skin was also running with perspiration. “You see? Better already.”

“Don’t patronise me,” Sam said, still too uncomfortable to employ any courtesies. His own eyes, an undistinguished blue, were stinging as the salty sweat washed into them, and he wiped one of the squares of linen across his forehead. “In your view I may only be an insignificant little squab from the country, but I am as good a man as you or any other, and I would be grateful if you would remember it.”

There was a small, taut silence. Then suddenly Dark smiled. It was a remarkably attractive smile, curling his mouth and crinkling around his eyes, and it made him look years younger, and much more human. He held out his hand. “I stand rebuked, and deservedly so. My apologies, Mr. Jessop, I have treated you very unkindly. Will you forgive my boorish behaviour, and let me make amends?”

It was handsomely done, and despite his annoyance, Sam could not help but feel a growing liking for this mysterious and rather intimidating man. He put out his own hand, and their hot, wet palms clasped in friendship.

“I’m glad,” Dark said, mopping his face and the back of his neck with another piece of linen. “It would have been damnably difficult to find your missing daughter otherwise. The rubber will be in shortly – can you tell me a little about her now, while we are still alone?”

Mary. His beloved, precious girl. How to begin to describe her, who had been both the light and the bane of his life? Sam swallowed, feeling a curious mixture of grief and anger. If he ever did find her, he would embrace her with tears of joy and thankfulness. And afterwards, he would be sorely tempted to thrash some sense into her.

“She is seventeen come December,” he said, “and my only living child. She is very pretty, though I say so myself. Indeed, everyone says it. Lively, lovely, she dances like a nymph and sings like an angel. I am a wealthy man now, but I was born poor, and I wanted to give her everything that I had never had when I was young.” He glanced at the other man, and smiled wryly. “Yes, I know what you must be thinking, and it’s true, she has been much indulged. My poor wife, while she lived, could never deny her anything she wanted. I do my best to provide some discipline and authority, but I am often away from home on business, and so I must leave her in the care of the servants. And last month, before I set off for in northern parts, I instructed Mrs. Langton, my housekeeper, to find a dancing master for her. Mary wanted to go to assemblies with her friends, and of course she must shine her brightest to attract a husband.” He could not help a tinge of bitterness in his voice. “Of course, I thought that she was too young to be married. I couldn’t help remembering my sweet little girl, all curls and smiles, playing with her kitten and her dolls. So I saw no danger until it was too late.”

He swallowed, remembering. The return from York, with presents for his beloved daughter. The dreadful news, given by Mary’s maid with a smirk of satisfaction that had earned her nothing save instant dismissal, for she must have been complicit. And the housekeeper, full of terrified and tearful apologies that had done nothing to mitigate his horror.

There were tears in his eyes, but fortunately they were indistinguishable from sweat. Sam wiped the cloth over his face and added baldly, “As you may have guessed, she had run off with the dancing master. A plausible rogue with a handsome face and a charming tongue on him, by all accounts. And French, a people I have no love for, begging your pardon, sir, and this one must be one of the worst of them. A sly, scheming, wicked rogue. I just pray that he has treated my Mary well, and not discarded her in the gutter as so many seducers do, once they have tired of their prey. Sometimes at night I lie awake and wonder ... " He broke off, and hastily mopped his face again.