Here is the fifth chapter of Dr Michael Apichella’s adventure novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds.
As the Norman-Tower bell tolled eight times, there came an urgent rapping at the bedroom door. ‘Master Roger?’ called Goody in a tentative voice from the antechamber.
‘There’s a man downstairs to see you. Whereunto he has fetched a box from Mr. Stanley. Shall I show him up?’ Roger cast a glance in Johnny’s direction.
‘Yes, Goody, do, send him up, please.’
A tall man wearing a moss coloured doublet and a battered cocked hat black as sin stepped across the threshold with Goody close on his heels.
Johnny’s heart leapt like a hart when he saw the strongbox in his rough hands. He planned to have those guineas before the cock crowed at morning light.
‘This is Mr. Stuart, if you please.’
‘Thank you, madam,’ Roger replied. ‘That will be all.’ The old woman remained rooted to the spot like ivy. ‘Will you be requiring anything, Sir?’
Annoyed at her unvarnished curiosity, he growled. ‘That will be all, thank you Goody Rookes.’ Fingering the hem of her cotton apron, she prevaricated. ‘Perhaps a little something to eat for the gentleman? He’s come all the way from Ipswich of an evening.’ #
Johnny bared his teeth and waved her out of the room.
Roger chuckled like a mountain brook. ‘I’ll come down presently to tell you the content of yon box.’ Goody opened her mouth as if to speak, frowned and retreated from the chamber.
‘Allow me to take your cloak and hat, Mr. Stuart.’ That’s when Johnny noticed their guest was armed with a blunderbuss and rapier.
‘With all due respect, Sirs, if you have something to wet my lips. As the good lady inferred, I have had a hard ride here, and my orders are to hand this box over to its rightful owner and return sharpish to Mr. Stanley’s offices.’
Johnny plucked a flask of Jamaican gin and a cup from a shelf. ‘We use this for Roger’s pain. Will it do?’ Mr. Stuart’s eyes lighted up like Stingy Jack. 7
‘Oh, yes, sir. Only one, though, as I’m on duty. And not much more than a drop.’
Pouring, Johnny tried to lift the decanter. Mr. Stuart planted a firm forefinger on the neck until the cup brimmed.
He sucked it down in three hearty gulps, and brushed his moist lips with hairy knuckles. ‘No more, thank ye! And now to a happy task, methinks.’
He shook the strongbox smartly making the contents sing. ‘And which of you two fine gentlemen is Master Roger Partridge, then?’
Roger and Johnny glared at one another. ‘I am called Roger, but for all of my life, I have been called Roger Pilgrim, not Roger Partridge.’
‘Eh?’ Mr. Stuart instantly tightened his grip on the strongbox and took one step backwards.
Johnny grinned. ‘I think I can clear up this matter. Though my brother is indeed surnamed Pilgrim, he is, in point of fact, Roger Partridge. Or should be at least.’
‘I see. Can you prove that with documentation?’ said Mr. Stuart, suddenly playing the jobsworth.
‘Of course not. We only just learned this fact from Mr. Stanley a few hours ago ourselves.’
‘What? I have strict orders to hand this over only to Master Roger Partridge, the rightful heir of the late Mr. Elias Partridge. I may not hand it to anyone who cannot prove legally that he is that person.’ The air was heavy with silence. ‘It now occurs to me that I have wasted my time. I must beg your pardons and hasten my leave, for I have a long and sorry ride this night, I fear. Good evening, Sirs.’
Johnny’s heart plummeted like a hawk shot out of the air at the thought of those golden beauties being carried back to Mr. Stanley.
He swore inwardly because the lawyer hadn’t made some mitigating provision for the confused surnames. Now
Mr. Stanley would hem and haw over the details up in Ipswich for want of a piffling legal document to vouchsafe Roger’s proper surname.
Just then the three all plainly heard a floorboard groan in the hallway. Without a second’s hesitation, Mr. Stuart expertly drew his rapier and wrenched open the door.
There was Goody Rookes stooping at the keyhole with upturned eyes.
‘Aha! A spy!’
‘Oh, sir! I didn’t mean any mischief.’ At the sight of Mr. Stuart’s weapon, her words became gurgles in a deep drain and she swooned to the floor. Johnny snatched another cup down from the shelf and poured a drop of gin and pushed it to her lips.
‘Sip this, woman!’
Goody Rookes was propped up in a chair like a rag doll, and the three men stood looking down at her as her eyes fluttered open.
She glanced from face to face.
‘Why were you at the key hole, dear Goody Rookes?’ implored Roger. ‘I would gladly have told you all my news in the fullness of time. Truly.’
Goody bowed her head and murmured, as if she were addressing the stays on her white collar. ‘Begging your masters’ pardon,’ she said. ‘I’m not myself. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since Mr. Addams and Lawyer Stanley came together to call after all these years. Of course, to you it may seem none of my business.’
‘I am away now that the lady seems animated again.’ Goody peeked up shyly at Mr. Stuart, his massive hands clasped around the strongbox, and his legs spread wide, thinking the foolish old woman’s babble was no concern of his.
Boldly, she clutched at his sleeve. ‘Nay, sir. Pray stay and hear me out, if it please you.’ She turned to Roger and Johnny.
‘I knew when Mr. Stuart asked at the door if Roger Partridge lived here, I ought to have told you by now.’
‘Told us what, madam?’ cried Johnny.
‘Roger and John Pilgrim do not exist, same as if they never was born. Your surname should be Partridge. ‘T’was my late husband what nicknamed you Pilgrim, for he always said you came to this house like pilgrims. And as your father asked never to be identified as your sire, the label Pilgrim stuck.’
‘But,’ demanded Stuart, clearly eager to obey the letter of the law and then get to his dinner, ‘it’s a Partridge not a Pilgrim I hunt.’
‘Sir, verily, these boys are Partridges. Birds of a feather as you might say.’
‘Says you. But are you prepared to prove this, Madam?’
‘The devil,’ cried Johnny, becoming more vexed by the second.
Goody eyed Mr. Stuart, cocking her head. ‘You, sir, are looking for Roger Partridge, heir to Elias Partridge, isn’t that so?’
‘You know I am, Madam. But upon my word, whereas I have found a cockerel and a silent cuckoo with broken legs, I doubt I’ll find a Partridge in this company.’
‘Aye, says you. But says I you’d be wrong.’ Goody reached inside her breast pocket and produced two documents. ‘Oh, yes. I told my Christopher a hundred times if I told him once, it’s that glad I am that I didn’t listen to him and have the boys christened Pilgrim by the Rev. Mr. Weems.’ She proffered the papers.
‘I’ve had these in my possession since the boys were small. Go on take ‘em. It’s copies of their baptism certificates stored at St. James’ Church, signed by the rector himself.
According to the baptismal certificates, that’s Roger Partridge. And that’s his brother Johnny Partridge.’
Most nights Johnny found dropping off to sleep to be easy due to a clear conscience.
But slumber eluded him as he plotted ways to steal the 60 guineas that lay in the strongbox resting on the table beside Roger’s bed.
He perspired profusely, shifting this way and that in tangled bedclothes, finding no comfort for his body or his mind.
His stomach turned cartwheels. Twice Johnny crept to Roger’s bedside, and while his brother softly breathed, he weighed the strongbox in his clammy hands.
It’s only a small portion of the inheritance. Roger’ll have the house and the revenue from our father’s investments. Yet a deep and abiding sense of guilt rushed over Johnny like a powerful estuary riptide, for never in his life had he stolen so much as an apple from a neighbour’s tree.
Quietly, he retreated back to his bed, counting the hours of the night with the help of the infernal adjacent church bell.
He knew that unless he acted promptly, dawn would find him still a pauper.
Rising, Johnny dressed quickly and snatched up the strong box, slipping the key into his pocket and patting it for good measure.
Knowing he would surely be the prime suspect when the household discovered the money gone, Johnny set about arranging things to hide his deed.
He recalled seeing a ladder near the east end of St. James’ church where repairs to the roof were underway. Stepping up to the bedroom window, he wrapped a kerchief around his fist and gave the glass a smart rap so as to shatter the pane.
Roger didn’t stir.
Then after opening the window, strongbox in hand, he padded out of the room and down through the house silent as thought, intending to set a ladder under their bedroom window making it look as if some sneak thief had broken into their room and taken Roger’s money after he had left for the Cambridge coach at the Angel Hotel.
On the ground floor, he crept along the flagstone corridor in the dark, feeling the wall with one outstretched hand. As he approached the back door, someone carrying a candle rounded a corner.
‘Is that Squire Partridge back from the dead?’
It was Goody Rookes. The curls on Johnny’s neck stiffened when he beheld the pale spectre in the flickering light. Her hair was like a lion’s mane, and she was barefoot and in her nightclothes.
‘Squire Partridge,’ she whispered, ‘I warned you. You’ll curse the day you abandoned your poor boys.’ Suddenly, goody let out a groan that sounded as if it split her soul in two as she made straight for Johnny. Although her eyes were wide open and the dancing flame threw light this way and that, she didn’t see anything on this earth. Johnny pressed against the wall allowing her to traipse by muttering.
Quickly he bolted out the back door to fetch the ladder. Balancing the heavy climbing apparatus on his back, he tiptoed back to the house and positioned it against the wall under the shattered bedroom window.
Just then his attention was drawn by a thump at the back door.
‘Squire Partridge?’ The somnolent widow must have visited every room in the house, and now she was outside in her billowing night dress pale as a banshee.
At the sight of her in the flickering candlelight, Johnny pivoted and dashed under the Norman Tower and flew nimbly into the night.
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved
For the next chapter, visit the Bury Free Press website next Sunday at 6pm.