Last week we published the first chapter of Dr Michael Apichella’s novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds. The adventure continues in the next instalment here.
The tintinnabulation of the old Norman-Tower bell announced the noon hour as a sudden wind blustered out of the east.
Dark clouds blotted the bright sunshine, and the peddlers camped along the abbey walls clutched at billowing oilcloths to keep them from taking flight.
Here and there straw, onion skins and dust whirled in irascible eddies. Everywhere the scent of rain hung in the air until at last the rain began whipping the ground in slivery lashes.
Many made for the great portal of the ancient abbey gate, including an alderman and a doctor, who took care not to splatter their white stockings in the coffee-coloured rivulets coursing along the ground.
Johnny Pilgrim was fast on their heels, a sack of provisions bouncing over his back.
Hearing the footfalls all about him, a sightless vagabond proffered his grimy hand. ‘Alms for a blinded soldier!’ Finding himself pressed closely to the beggar, the doctor, clad in a simple but costly brown wool suit, ignored his plea, but the alderman, resplendent in a blue satin coat and fine white breeches capped by a luxurious wig, glanced curiously at the wanderer’s tattered military uniform.
‘You were a soldier?’
‘If it please you, Sir.’
‘Which regiment, man?’
‘The Bristol Regiment of Foot, raised by the Duke of Clifton himself, Sir.’
‘And who was your Colonel?’
‘Begging your pardon, Sir, I wasn’t a regular. I was militia. But Captain Mortimer led my company, he did.’
‘If you were with the Bristol Regiment surely you would know the name of the honourable Colonel Ruddick who happens to be my kinsman.’ The beggar knuckled his scabby forehead. ‘T’were a long time ago, begging your pardon, Sir.’
‘Do come along, Martin,’ chided the doctor. ‘We’ll be late.’
‘Presently, James. Soldier, how did you come to lose your sight?’
‘My flintlock exploded to bits during a battle out in the American colonies.’
‘Indeed? My companion here is a medical doctor. James, kindly examine this man’s eyes.’
‘Now really, Martin. We ought to be going.’
‘I insist. Would you say his blindness was caused by an explosion or by some other reason?’
‘This is highly irregular.’ Reluctantly the physician approached the beggar. ‘I won’t hurt you, friend. Just turn your face here.’ The doctor gently lifted first one and then the other swollen eyelid. ‘Of course, this isn’t a thorough investigation, but I’d say his blindness was caused by some untreated malady, not the result of an explosion, though I see evidence of what could be old scars on the retinas.’
‘That would be correct, Sir. The explosion only weakened my eyes. I could see well enough in a day or two to serve for another year. Then one morning I awoke and everything was white as hoarfrost. I ain’t seen man nor beast since.’
‘That will do very nicely, James. This mendicant is obstructing the king’s footpath and is giving one of the finest regiments in the land a bad name into the bargain.’ The knot of bystanders turned to see what would happen next. ‘As for you, you old scoundrel, you were never a soldier, and you certainly did not lose your eyesight defending your king. Just how you came to be blind is anyone’s guess. Too much bad rum, I daresay.’ He clutched the beggar by a frayed lapel and shook him smartly. ‘Now, I will be passing by this very spot at One of the Clock. If you are still loitering here about, I will have you lying in irons in the town gaol before another hour passes.’
The beggar drew a sharp breath as if he had received a blow to the belly with a sharp elbow. The alderman released the beggar, wiping his fingertips on his kerchief.
‘Now off with you!’ With that, he clapped his hands like a man shooing away a goose. Pivoting, the old soldier beat the slippery cobblestones with his stick, jostling through the laughing bystanders who barely made way.
Ignoring the falling rain, Johnny followed the old man at some distance until they were around the corner in Mustow Street. ‘Ho, soldier! Halt!’ cried Johnny.
The beggar rounded. ‘Who’s that? What do you want of me?’
‘I’m a friend. I heard what you told Alderman Winkler back there.’
The beggar’s cloudy eyes brimmed with tears – or possibly raindrops – Johnny couldn’t tell. ‘I’m no liar. What I told the gentleman is God’s truth.’
‘I believe you. Have you any money, or food, or a place to stay?’
‘Upon my soul, I would not be begging if I did.’
‘I thought as much. Here.’ Johnny fished out his last two pennies from his pocket. ‘Put out your hand.’ He pressed the money into the old man’s palm. ‘It’s not much.’ The beggar rubbed the coins between his thumb and forefinger. ‘Perhaps that will pay for a room for the night. And take this, too.’ Johnny broke a loaf of bread in two giving it to the beggar along with a generous chunk of cheese.’
‘Nay.’ The old man tried to hand it back. ‘You’ll want it.’
‘Nonsense. A gift to an old soldier, and God bless you, Sir. I only wish I could give you more, only there’s a poor widow with whom my brother and I board. But I’m clever and my brother’s got a strong arm, and together we earn a pretty penny most weeks.’
‘It’s like that, is it?’
‘Very much so.’
‘In that case.’ The beggar bit the bread, tearing it unhurriedly with his few teeth and raw gums. ‘It’s that hungry I am. Thank’ee.’
‘You’ll do a good turn for me, someday, I daresay.’
‘Oh, sooner than that.’ By now, the clouds parted and the sun poked long golden fingers through the grey mist, illuminating the odd lopsided chimney and tiled gables. Responding to the sunshine, the beggar lifted his face skyward basking in the warmth of the rays. ‘God’s gift to the poor.’
Johnny’s eyes fell on the curled yellowed nails of the man’s toes stabbing through the gaps in his boots. ‘We won’t be wet long, soldier, eh? Why not sit and dry in the sun while you sup?’
The beggar pushed the remaining morsels of food into his pocket. ‘That will never do.
You heard the alderman. I must away. But first, I wish to give you something you need.’
‘What could you possibly have that I would require?’
‘Come closer and know.’ Before Johnny could move, the beggar seized Johnny’s wrist and yanked him to his breast in a bear hug. Johnny smelled sour perspiration and twisted to get away. ‘Look ye into my eyes, boy!’
‘Why should I?’
‘I want to tell you something, my little Partridge.’ The old man squeezed harder. ‘But first I must see eyes. Look now’
‘But you said you were blind! If you see me, you must be a liar and a thief to boot.’
Suddenly the beggar’s grip became vice-like, hurting Johnny a little.
‘Mark ye.’ The old man’s Stoney glances darted this way and that. ‘What I see don’t come from my dead eyeballs!’ The beggar jabbed his stick towards the sky. ‘I see what comes from above. Yes, yes. Your name’s Johnny, surnamed Pilgrim, ain’t that right?’
‘What are you, a fortune-teller?’
‘Says you! Most say I’m quite mad. In either case, shall I tell you what else I see or not?’
Thinking to humour the man, Johnny stopped struggling. ‘Say on.’
‘Then let me have a good look at you.’ Turning him loose, his milky orbs took in Johnny from head to toe. Parting his lips, exposing worn yellow stumps, he spoke at last.
‘I see you in a foreign land lying half-asleep in a hovel roofed with worn out shingles. Dirt floor – red dirt packed hard as flint – and mouldy straw and rotted maize husks lying about. I see stalls where cattle or hogs might have been penned, but there be no animals to warm this place. The serpent has struck and two black faces watch you. You’re ragged, shivering, and sick. You feel completely alone. But don’t let feelings fool you. Most unreliable, most unreliable. What’ this? I see ministering spirits. Scores of them. Male and female. Beautiful shimmering creatures – gold, silver, emerald, sapphire, and ruby. All around you. Some plucking at your ragged sleeve as if to prompt you to stay awake for your help is nigh.’ The beggar nodded judiciously as if someone had just whispered in his ear. ‘Aye, aye.’
‘I’ve a Word for you. “Blessed is he that considereth the needy: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble. The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt keep him from harm from his enemies.” Remember this Word my Partridge.’
‘Why will you insist on that silly word Partridge and not my name?’
Ignoring his question, the beggar repeated, ‘Remember my words.’ He then moved away from Johnny as if he had merely enquired the time of day.
For the next chapter in the Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, visit www.buryfreepress.co.uk next Sunday at 6pm.
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved