I see from my commonplace book that I spent that day in an ordinary fashion. I attended divine service at St. Mary’s as usual, for I always gave my loyalty when in town to the university church, and endured a tedious (and quite erroneous) sermon on Matthew 15:23, in which even the most ardent could find no merit, even though we tried in discussion afterward. I have sat through many such in my life, and find myself having some sympathy for the papist style of worship. Irreligious, heretical and ungodly it may be, but at least Catholicism does not so greatly expose its members to the nonsense of pompous fools more in love with the sound of their own voices than with their Lord.
Then I attended to business. My correspondence took an hour or so, for I had few letters to answer that day, and I passed the rest of the morning at work with my book on the history of the algebraic method, writing with great ease those passages wherein I demonstrated with unchallengeable proofs the fraudulent claims of Vieta, all of whose inventions were, in fact, conceived some thirty years previously by Mr. Harriot.
Small stuff, but it occupied me fully until I donned my gown and descended to the hall, where Grove introduced me to Marco da Cola.
I cannot put in words the suffocating loathing I felt on first casting eyes on the man who had extinguished Matthew’s life so carelessly and with such ruthlessness. Everything about his appearance disgusted me, so much so that I felt my throat tightening and thought, for a moment, that nausea would overcome me entirely. His air of amiability merely pointed up the magnitude of his cruelty, his exquisite manners reminded me of his violence, the expense of his dress, the speed and coldness of his deed. God help me, I could not bear the thought of that stinking perfumed body close to Matthew, those fat and manicured hands stroking that perfect young cheek.
I feared then that my expression must have given away something, informed Cola as that I knew who he was and what he was to do, and it may even be that it was the look of horror on my face which prompted him to move faster, and attempt my life that same night. I do not know; both of us behaved as well as we could; neither, I think, gave anything away thereafter and, to all outsiders, the meal must have appeared perfectly normal.
Cola has given his account of that dinner, wherein he mixes insult to his hosts with exaggeration about his own conversation. Oh, those splendid speeches, those reasoned responses, the patient way in which he smoothed ruffled feathers and corrected the egregious errors of his poor seniors! I must apologize, even at this late date, for not having appreciated his wit, his sagacity and his kindliness, for I confess all of these fine qualities completely escaped my notice at the time. Instead, I saw (or thought I saw, for I must have been wrong) an uneasy little man with more mannerisms than manners, dressed like a cockatoo and with an insinuating assumption of gravitas in his address which failed completely to disguise the superficiality of his learning. His affectation of courtly ways, and his scorn of those kind enough to offer him hospitality, was apparent to all who had the misfortune to sit near him. The flourish with which he produced a little scrap of cloth to vent his nostrils excited the ridicule of all, and his pointed remarks—in Venice everyone uses forks; in Venice wine is drank from glass; in Venice this, in Venice that—aroused only their disgust. Like many who have little to say, he said too much, interrupting without courtesy and favoring with the benefit of his wisdom those who did not desire it.
I felt almost sorry for him as Grove, with a twinkle in his eye, goaded him like a stupid bull, pulling him first one way, then the other, persuading him to make the most ridiculous statements, then forcing him to contemplate his own absurdity. There was no matter under the heavens, as far as I could see, on which the Italian did not have a firm and fixed opinion, and not a single opinion which was in any way correct or thoughtfully arrived at. In truth, he astonished me, for in my mind’s eye I had imagined him to be quite other. It was hard to comprehend how such a man could be anything other than a buffoon, incapable of causing harm to any man unless he bored him to death, or asphyxiated him with the wafts of perfume that escaped his body.
Only once did he let down his guard, and only for the most fleeting of instants did I penetrate through that mask to what lay underneath; then all my suspicions returned in full force, and I realized that he had almost succeeded in his aim of disarming all caution. I was unprepared for it, although I should not have been so easy in giving my contempt, for that merchant I had interviewed in the Reel prison had forewarned me. He had mentioned his astonishment that hardened soldiers on Candia treated the man with the greatest respect, and I allowed myself to be taken in as well.
Until the moment came when, for the only time in the evening, Cola was thrust into the background by the eruption of hostility between Grove and Thomas Ken. For Cola was like one of those actors who strut the stage, preening themselves in the light of the audience’s attention. While they have eyes on them, they are the characters they pretend to be, and all present believe that they are indeed seeing King Harry at Agincourt or a Prince of Denmark in his castle. But when another speaks and they are in the background, watch them then; see how the fire in them goes out, and how they become mere actors again, and only put on their disguise once more when their turn to speak comes once more.
Cola resembled such a player. When Ken and Grove exchanged quotations, and Ken walked heavily out, bowed down by the certainty of his defeat—for the election to the living had been set for the next week and Grove’s victory was assured—Cola let slip the mask he had worn so well. In the background for the first time, he leaned back to regard the scene being played out before his eyes. I alone watched him; the squabbles of college fellows had no interest for me, as I had witnessed so many already. And I alone saw the flicker of amusement, and the way in which everything said and unsaid in that fight was instantly comprehensible to him. He was playing a game with us all, and was confident of his success, and he was now underestimating his audience as I had underestimated him. He did not realize that I saw, that instant, into his soul and perceived the devilish intent that lay hidden there, coiled and waiting to be unleashed when all around had been lulled into thinking him a fool. I took succor from that flash of understanding, and thanked the Lord for allowing me such a sign; for I knew then what Cola was, just as I knew I could defeat him. He was a man who made mistakes, and his greatest error was overconfidence.
His conversation was tedious even to Grove but good manners dictated that he be invited back to share a drink after the supper was concluded and the final blessing given. I know this to be the case, even though Cola says differently. He says that Grove escorted him directly to the college gate, and there all contact between them ceased. This cannot be, as a man of Grove’s natural courtesy would not have acted so. I do not doubt that the refreshment was curtailed, and I do not doubt that Grove lied by saying he had to go and visit Prestcott as a way of getting rid of the man, but it is inconceivable that the evening would have ended as Cola says. It is another deliberate falsehood I have detected in his account, although by this time I believe I have indicated so many that there is scarcely point in continuing the exercise further.
What is certain is that Cola expected me to go to my room, find the bottle of brandy laced with poison at the foot of my stairs—who else might it have been for, since Grove was the only other person on the stairs and he was supposed to be absent that evening?—and expected me to drink it. He then returned late in the night and, though he did not find me dead, ransacked my room and took not only the letter I had intercepted, but also the letter given to me by Samuel in 1660. It was an evil scheme, made all the worse later by his willingness to stand by and let the Blundy girl die in his place, for I have no doubt he procured that arsenic in the Low Countries, then lied outright in saying he had none in his pharmacopoeia. It is monstrous to contemplate, but some men are so wicked and depraved that no deceit is beyond their powers.
What Cola did not anticipate is that the real object of his murderous venom would be so far beyond his reach. For I did go to see Prestcott and, even though I had to suffer the greatest indignation at that wretched boy’s hands, at least the affront was matched by useful information. It was a cold evening, and I wrapped myself up as well as I could for the interview; Prestcott at least had enough friends in the world to provide him with blankets and warm clothing, although their generosity did not extend to allowing him a fire in the grate or anything other than candles of the cheapest pig fat, which sputtered and stank as they gave off their feeble light. I had mistakenly omitted to bring any of my own, so the conversation took place in virtual darkness, and to this, as well as my foolish generosity of spirit, do I attribute Prestcott’s ability to surprise me in the way he did.
The meeting began with Prestcott’s refusal even to listen to me unless I had promised to unshackle him from the thick heavy chains which bound him to the wall—a necessary restraint, as I later learned.
“You must understand, Dr. Wallis, that I have been chained up like this for nearly three weeks, and I am mightily tired of it. My ankles are covered in sores, and the noise of the chains rattling every time I turn over is sending me mad. Does anyone expect that I will escape? Burrow through the four feet of stonework to the outside world, leap down sixty feet into the ditch and run away?”
“I will not unchain you,” I said, “until I have some expectation of cooperation.”
“And I will not cooperate until I have some expectation of continuing to live beyond the next assizes.”
“On that I may be able to offer you something. If I am satisfied by your replies, then I will assure you of a pardon from the king. You will not go free, as the insult to the Compton family would be too great for them to bear, but you will be suffered to go to America, where you can make a new life.”
He snorted. “More freedom than I desire,” he said. “Freedom to plow the earth like some peasant, wearied to death by the dronings of Puritans and hacked to death by Indians whose methods, I may say, we would do well to imitate here. Some of these people would make any sensible man reach for his hatchet. Thank you, good doctor, for your generos-ity.”
“It is the best I can do,” I said, although I am not sure even now whether I intended to do it. But I knew that if I offered him too much he would not believe me. “If you accept, you will surely live, and later on you may win a reprieve and be allowed to return. And it is the only chance you have.”
He thought a long while, slumped on his cot and huddled in his blanket. “Very well,” he said reluctantly. “I suppose I have no choice. It is better than the offer I received from Mr. Lower.”
“I’m glad you at last see reason. Now then, tell me about Mr. Cola.”
He looked genuinely surprised at the question. “Why on earth do you want to know about him?”
“You should only be glad that I do. Why did he come and see you here?”
“Because he is a civil and courteous gentleman.”
“Do not waste my time, Mr. Prestcott.”
“Indeed, I do not know what else to say, sir.”
“Did he ask you for anything?”
“What could I give him?”
“Something of your father’s, perhaps?”
“A copy of Livy.”
“That again? Tell me, doctor, why is that so important to you?”
“That is not your affair.”
“In that case I do not care to answer.”
I thought it could do me no harm, as Prestcott did not have the book in any case. “The book is the key to some work I am doing. If I have it, I can decipher some letters. Now, did Cola ask you about it?”
“No.” Here Prestcott rolled on his little cot and convulsed with merriment at what he thought was a fine joke at my expense. I began to weary mightily of him.
“Truly, he did not. I am sorry, doctor,” he said, wiping his eye. “And to make amends I will tell you what I know. Mr. Cola was recently a guest of my guardian and was staying there when Sir William was attacked. Without his skill, I understand Sir William would have died of his injuries that night, and he is evidently a formidably clever surgeon to patch him up so neatly.” He shrugged. “And that is all there is to be said. I can tell you no more.”
“What was he doing there?”
“I gathered they had a joint interest in trading matters. Cola’s father is a merchant, and Sir William is Master of the Ordnance. One sells goods, the other uses government money to buy them. Both desire to make as much money as possible, and naturally they wished to keep their association quiet, for fear of Lord Clarendon’s wrath. That, at least, is how I understand things.”
“And why do you understand them so?”
Prestcott gave me a look of contempt. “Come now, Dr. Wallis. Even I know how Sir William and Lord Clarendon detest each other. And even I know that if the faintest whiff of corruption attached itself to Sir William’s exercise of his office, Clarendon would use it to eject him.”
“Apart from your own supposition, do you have any reason to think this fear of Lord Clarendon’s wrath is why Cola’s association with Sir William was kept hidden?”
“They talked of Clarendon incessantly. Sir William hates him so much, he cannot keep him out of his conversation at times. Mr. Cola was exceptionally courteous, I think, in listening so patiently to his complaints.”
“How is that?”
Prestcott was so na"ive that he did not even begin to comprehend my interest in everything that Cola did or said, and as gently as a lamb I led him through every word and gesture that he had heard the Italian utter, or seen him make.
“On three occasions when I was there, Sir William returned to the subject of Lord Clarendon, and every time he harped on about what a malign influence he was. How he held the king in the palm of his hand, and encouraged His Majesty’s licentiousness, so that he might have free run to loot the kingdom. How all good Englishmen wished to oust him, but were unable to summon the resolve or the courage to take decisive action. You know the sort of thing, I am sure.”
I nodded to encourage him and to establish that sympathy in conversation which encourages greater openness of discourse.
“Mr. Cola listened patiently, as I say, and made valiant attempts to deflect the conversation into less heated areas, but sooner or later it came back to the Lord Chancellor’s perfidy. What particularly incensed Sir William was Clarendon’s great house at Cornbury Park.”
I believe I must have frowned here, as I could not grasp the meaning of it. The wealth that had been heaped on Clarendon since the Restoration had, indeed, incited great envy, but there seemed no particular reason why this should focus on Cornbury. Prestcott saw my perplexity, and for once was kind enough to enlighten me.
“The Lord Chancellor has acquired large portions of land right up into Chipping Norton, deep into Compton territory. Sir William believes that a concerted assault is being launched on his family’s interest in South Warwickshire. As he said, not long ago the Comptons would have known how to deal with such impudence.”
I nodded gravely, since my penetration into this great mystery was deepening with every word that dropped from Prestcott’s lips. I was beginning to think, even, that I would keep my word to the lad, for his testimony might well prove useful in the future, and I could not have that were he to swing.
“Mr. Cola successfully diverted the talk onto other matters, but nothing was safe. Once he mentioned his experience of English roads; even that brought Sir William back to the topic of Clarendon.”
Prestcott paused. “It is a very trivial matter.”
“Of course it is,” I agreed. “But tell me nonetheless. And when you have done, I will ensure you are unshackled, and remain so for the rest of your short stay in this place.”
I have no doubt that, like all people in similar circumstances, he invented where he could not remember; such duplicity is common and was expected. It is the task of the expert interrogator to separate wheat and chaff, and allow the winds to blow away the rubbish from the precious seed.
“They were talking of the road which runs northward from Witney to Chipping Norton, and which Cola had taken on his way to Compton Wynyates. Why he did so I cannot imagine, as it is not the most direct route. But I gather he is one of these curious gentlemen. Nosy, I call them, who peek and pry at all things not their affair, and call it enquiry.”
I suppressed a sigh, and smiled at the boy in what I hoped would appear as sympathy. Prestcott, at least, appeared to take it as such.
“It is, apparently, the road which my Lord Clarendon takes on his way to Cornbury, and Cola joked that if Sir William was fortunate, Clarendon might be shaken to death by the journey, or drowned in a water-filled hole, so bad was the condition of the road, and so lax the county at maintaining it. Do you really want to hear this, sir?”
I nodded. “Continue,” I said. I could feel the tingle in my blood as I knew I was almost there, and could brook no further delays. “Tell me.”
Prestcott shrugged. “Sir William laughed, and tried to match him by saying that maybe he would be shot by a highwayman as well, for it is known he always travels with only a small retinue. Many a man had been murdered of late, with the assailant never apprehended. Then the conversation went on to other things. And that,” Prestcott said, “is that. End of the story.”
I had it. I knew I had unraveled the layers of the problem and penetrated deep into its heart. It was like one of those conundra, sent out in competition by mathematicians to challenge their rivals. However formidable in appearance, however deliberately designed to perplex and confuse, yet there is always a simplicity at their core, and the art of victory lies in careful thought and a calm working through of the outer reaches until that center is arrived at. Like an army laying siege to a castle, the skill lies not in a wide assault around the perimeter, but a gentle probing of the outworks until the weak spot of the defenses—for there always is one—is revealed. Then all the strength of the attack can be focused on that one point until it gives way. Cola had made the mistake of visiting Prestcott; I had persuaded Prestcott to tell me of their connection.
And now I had nearly the whole plot in my hand, and my earlier error was made clear. Cola was not here to kill the king, as I had thought. He was here to murder the Lord Chancellor of England.
But I still could not credit that this thick-headed gentleman, Sir William Compton, was capable of such subtle de-viousness that he might plot with the Spanish for months and sponsor a hired murderer. As I say, I knew him. A challenge, or some such bravado, I could have understood. But not this. I had gone far; but not far enough. Behind Compton, I was sure, lay another. There had to be.
And so I questioned Prestcott further, seeking out every contact he had made, every single name Sir William or Cola had mentioned. He gave some useless answers, but then decided to bargain some more.
“And now, sir,” he said, moving his legs so the chains around his ankles rattled and chinked against the floor, “I have talked long enough, and had confidence in your fidelity to give you much with nothing in return. So now unlock these shackles, that I may walk about the little room like a normal man.”
God help me, I did as he asked, seeing little harm in it, and wishing to give him encouragement to continue in a cooperative fashion. I summoned the jailer, who unlocked the shackles and presented me with the key, asking me to be so good as to relock them once more when I left. It cost a shilling in bribes.
Then he left the cell, and Prestcott listened in what I thought was mournful silence as the steps echoed down the stone staircase once more.
I will not go into the details of the humiliation I suffered at the hands of that madman once the footsteps had died away. Prestcott had the cunning of the desperate, I the inattention of the concerned, for my mind was on what he had told me. In brief, within minutes of being left alone once more, Prestcott had used violence on me, stopping my mouth, binding my hands and shackling me to the cot so tightly I could neither move nor raise the alarm. I was so outraged I could barely even think correctly, and was suffused with rage when he finally put his face close to mine.
“Not pleasant, eh?” he hissed in my ear. “And I have endured many weeks of it. You are lucky; you will be here only for one night. Remember; I could easily have killed you, but I will not.”
That was all. He then sat unconcernedly for some ten minutes or more until he judged the time was right, then put on my heavy cloak and hat, picked up my Bible—my family Bible, given into my hands by my own father—and bowed in a gross parody of courtesy to me.
“Sweet dreams, Dr. Wallis,” he said. “I hope we do not meet again.”
After five minutes, I gave up struggling and lay until the morning brought my release.