Here is the sixth chapter of Dr Michael Apichella’s adventure novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds.
The echoes of his footfalls reverberated as he dashed headlong for the Angel whose darkened windows looked down on the fast-approaching thief like disproving eyes.
Once in front of the locked front door, he stopped.
He fished out his kerchief to wipe his damp brow and reddened cheeks.
So far, so good, thought Johnny. It would be at least two hours before anyone would discover the theft he reckoned. When news of the loss reaches me in Cambridge, I’ll feign outrage and swear I saw a man with a ladder lurking near the back of St. James’ Church when I left for the coach, thinking it odd but mindful not to miss my coach.
Johnny hadn’t time to transfer the ill-gotten guineas into a purse, more easily concealed beneath his cloak. He tried in vain to pull his cloak over the chest.
Suddenly, a man in blue serge breeches and matching waistcoat emerged from the dark inner yard signalling Johnny.
‘Hello-a! Are you waiting for a stage-coach, young Sir?’ Johnny gave the man a sidelong glance, a stout fellow, for the all of world looking like a blue barrel on stilts.
Not recognising him as any man he knew from his visits to the inn, Johnny looked away.
‘I’m employed by the stagecoach company,’ he offered.
The Stour bridge at Sudbury has collapsed in the night. Is it the Norwich coach you’ll be wanting?’
Hardly making eye contact, Johnny shook his head.
‘If it’s the Cambridge coach you’re wanting, due to the delay, you are advised to step into the inn until the next coach comes along at noon.’
‘If I may speak.’ A bearded gentleman stepped out of the shadows peering at Johnny’s strongbox. ‘Like this young gentleman, I have pressing business in Cambridge this morning at my counting house. Of course, I am not a coach driver.
But it seems to me that if your coachman has his wits about him, he’ll make for the ferry where the horse-drawn lighters transport grain to the numerous water-mills north-west of Sudbury; you know the one where the drovers water their sheep before they drive them to market? He could be across the river there.’
‘Bless my soul, you are quite right, Sir.’
The bearded man touched Johnny’s arm. ‘Friend, will you join me inside for refreshments as we wait? Say what is your pleasure.’
‘I thank’ee for your most kind invitation, Sir, but I think I’ll just bide my time here until the coach comes along.’
‘I see. As a well-brought up fellow, you know better than to fall in readily with a complete stranger. Pray forgive me that I made so bold.’
He shook his head sadly. ‘Still, when our coach comes, I should like very much to ride with a passenger who is obviously a gentleman, and who would certainly make an excellent partner for conversation on the ride to Cambridge.’ He made a quick bow and turned to leave with Blue Barrel.
‘Of course,’ he offered as an afterthought, ‘if I may I be frank with you – as one gentleman to another?’ He moved a step closer and patted his fat box, winking.
Johnny hugged his strongbox. ‘Upon my soul, there’s only receipts and letters of no great import in here, Sir.’
‘Nevertheless.’ He pointed towards other men who had lately come to see what the talk had been about; men who, if truth were told, appeared to be worthless fellows lacking morals.
Johnny knew at once from his open visage and his earnest speech that there was no guile in this man’s intent, only Johnny’s best interest.
Moreover, as two men were stronger than one, and as his lips were quite dry, Johnny gave out a merry laugh, saying, ‘Friend, you are hungry and thirsty! Why should I deny you your much-needed nourishment? Come, let’s go in and have something, and thereafter, we shall together ride to Cambridge and converse freely to while away the hours!’
‘Well said!’ He offered Johnny his hand, saying, ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am George Bartholomew.’
Johnny clapped his hand in his, but before he could introduce himself, the little barrel on stilts broke in. ‘Begging the gentlemen’s pardons, apparently yon front door is locked until Seven of the Clock, but the back door is wide open and the drinks are about to be served. This way, please.’ The loutish men now were milling about, muttering softly among themselves.
A few moved toward their flanks so as to cut off Johnny’s exit if he or Bartholomew decided to bolt. One of these men turned back and called out some rude epitaph and appeared to be sawing the air with his hand, but Johnny could not make out what he said. ‘If you two gentlemen will be wanting to wet your lips and sup on some tasty morsel before your journey, then I pray follow me.’
With that, Blue Barrel darted into the pitch-black passageway that led to the rear of the inn.
Holding Johnny’s hand and grinning, Mr. Bartholomew peered into the dark corridor. ‘Where’s that fat fellow gone now? Never mind. Come on. I know the very door he means.’
Johnny hesitated, for never had he gone in the Angel by any entrance other than the front door. ‘Come, come, good young sir,’ cried Bartholomew with a smart tug.
‘First come, first served!’ The next moment, they groped their way down the gloomy strait.
‘Carefully does it. Step carefully. This-a- way. This-a- way.’ Johnny could see nothing beyond his nose. Bartholomew chuckled, ‘Oh, I can taste the cold tongue and stout now!’
Suddenly, two sets of rough hands pinned Johnny’s arms to his sides, and a powerful hand with stubby fingers was clapped over his face, shoving a rag into his mouth to stop him from making more than a whimper.
His strongbox dropped to the ground with a loud crash only to be snatched up again by an unseen fourth person whom Johnny heard but could not see.
‘Stay quiet, boy, and you won’t get hurt!’ The speaker was so close Johnny could feel his breath on his ear. Someone shoved him against the wall and began to frisk him. ‘He has some papers and a key.’ Then a coarse rope was expertly wound around his ankles and wrists.
Johnny feared that his bones would pop out of joint, so tightly and expertly were the knots secured. In a panic, he tried to hop free, but it was no use.
Somewhere overhead a lamp was suddenly lit in a room, and in the light falling from that window, Johnny saw that the man with his hand over his mouth was none other than Blue Barrel.
The men crushing him against the wall were the ugly fellows whom Johnny had seen in the street.
They wore the red and grey clothing and black hats of the men who spent their days on the high seas, not the side streets of English towns.
The last man was none other than a broadly-grinning George Bartholomew.
‘Oh, this one’s going to make a dainty sailor,’ he said in a throaty drawl. ‘But first, I think we’re entitled to another little bonus for our night’s work, don’t you boys? Let’s just have look at the jingling “receipts and letters” inside his precious box!’ With a satisfied grunt, he received the strongbox key.
Johnny plainly heard the sprightly sound of the coachman’s trumpet coming from the front of the hotel, the signal that the Cambridge coach was nearing the Angel.
All heads turned as it drew up before the inn. The Norman Tower bell tolled five times.
‘Right on time,’ said Blue Barrel, cocking his head to one side like a carrion crow. Aghast at their double-dealing, Johnny knew his only hope of being saved was to spit out the filthy rag in his maw and call out, praying that the coach driver or some passenger might hear his cries. Savagely he shook his head and called out for help.
The next moment, a bright blue flare flashed before Johnny’s eyes as the ground crashed into him like a catapult.
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved
For the next chapter, visit the Bury Free Press website next Sunday at 6pm.