By Warwick Cairns
It is 1642 and England is hovering on the brink of civil war. When irate creditors force eighteen-year-old James Hanningford to flee from his wastrel father’s funeral, the chance to take part in a family friend’s lucrative ‘business deal’ seems to be a lifeline worth grasping with both hands. But when the deal begins to go horribly wrong he finds himself up to his neck in trouble he could never have begun to imagine. The threats he faces grow ever more deadly and he is forced to run, to steal, to lie, to dissemble – and worse – to escape the attentions of those who wish him dead. As events unfold he discovers surprising truths about his lost family wealth and learns the true character of those he thought his friends – and those he thought his enemies.
If I’d had any sense I would have stayed well away from my father’s funeral.
But sense isn’t something you’re particularly well endowed with at the age of eighteen, I find. Or at least, it wasn’t in my case.
God alone knows what got into me. A gloom-fuelled bout of maudlin filial piety was part of it, I think. Him lying there in the hallway, his open coffin propped up on two paint-spattered carpenter’s saw-horses – the tables and chairs were all gone by now, you see – and no-one left in the empty house but me.
Besides, there was precious little else to be doing that day. Not now that the horses had all been taken by the bailiffs – and even the dogs, too, if you can imagine such an outrage.
So I went.
I soon came to regret it.
It was not even as if my father had ever shown any particular signs of being especially fond of me at all: not even in his sober moments, of which there were precious few towards the end. Nor was there ever likely to be any of this ‘companionship in grief’ business in the church: the only people who were going to be shedding any tears that day were his many creditors, all packing the church to say their last bitter farewells to any hope of repayment of the extraordinary sums of money that my father had ‘borrowed’ from them on so many occasions under such outrageously flimsy pretexts.
Why would I have gone?
The vicar was not one to hide his feelings. He was newly appointed to the parish, one of the new persuasion who were beginning to make their presence felt in our part of the world at that time. This was out in Essex, and back in the early ‘forties, if that means anything to you. 1642 it would have been, the year my father died. And this vicar, well: all hellfire and damnation, he was, standing there glowering out from the pulpit in his long black coat and his broad white collar, and he gripped the lectern with a hand like a bird’s claw, holding his bible aloft with the other as he quoted great long passages of the scriptures from memory in the voice of doom.
He did not stint in his descriptions of what miserable damnèd sinners could expect to find waiting for them when they arrived, trembling with fear, before the throne of Our Lord on the Judgement Day. He’d spotted me right from the outset, of course, skulking at the back though I was. I could not help but notice how much of his sermon seemed to be addressed towards me in particular, and especially so when he got to the part about how the Almighty would personally see to it that the iniquities of he fathers shall be visited upon the sons, yea even unto the third and fourth generation, and so on, and so interminably forth.
As if it were my fault, any of it.
I did not think much of the new vicar, you’ll have deduced. I had him down then as the most obnoxious, disapproving, self-righteous zealot that ever there was, and by quite some way. This was before I met Oliver Cromwell, you’ll understand.
Oliver Cromwell: there’s a name for you. The whole world knows him now. He was not nearly as exalted back when I first met him, though, not Lord Protector or whatever it is that he’s taken to styling himself in these latter years, since the conclusion of the recent war that I played no small part in starting – as you shall see – but he was still every inch the sour, wart-faced humbug that he has since shown himself to the world to be. More to the point, I think he still harbours the same feelings towards me as he did at our last unfortunate meeting.
The one small mercy of it is that he does not appear to know where I am, just at present, and I am determined to keep things that way. Because if he knew, I am sure that he would still be just as keen as ever he was to finish off the job that his men started on me, and see me twitching out my last moments at the end of a rope for a liar, a dissembler, a blasphemer, a murderer and a horse-thief and all the other things he called me in parting.
He was particularly bothered about the horse-theft part, as I recall. Mind you, it was his horse I stole, so maybe there’s your reason.
After the service came the burial.
As things turned out I had to miss that part. I am told that a surprising number of the congregation stayed right until the very end, until the gravediggers had shovelled all of the earth back onto the coffin, and stamped it back down. Some even joined in, I hear. I have no reason not to believe it. They would have wanted to make absolutely sure that my father was well and truly dead, I should imagine, and that he wasn’t going to come clawing his way back out once they’d gone.
Even that I wouldn’t have put past him; and nor would they.
But as I say, I should have stayed well away from the whole thing right from the start.
There were any number of reasons for this, but chief among them was Sir Nicholas Kidd.
I had endured the sermon, and the not-altogether-friendly looks from the congregation throughout, and to tell the truth I’d had my fill of it. By this time I was heartily regretting my misguided decision ever to attend, and I’d reached the point of planning how best to slip away without attracting too much attention to myself in the process. Quite where I should go was another matter, now that the bailiffs had taken possession of the house that very morning; but somewhere. Anywhere but there.
When the coffin processed back down the aisle I ducked behind a pillar and hung back, watching and waiting for my moment. Tagging on to the tail end of the column of mourners seemed to be my best bet, and then to make my break round the side of the church once I was through the door.
I was just about to put this plan into action when I heard the voice behind me.
“Why, if it ain’t young Mr. James Hanningford hisself, large as life and twice as ugly.”
I turned at the sound of my name, and there he was, Sir Nicholas Kidd, short and squat and bald-headed, and looking for all the world like a large barrel dressed from head to toe in black mourning velvet.
“Sir Nicholas!” I said, “What a surprise to see you here!”
It was, too; though it was not by any means a pleasant one for me, and he knew it.
“A lot of people was saying the same about you, Hanningford. Saying as how they was surprised you’d dare show your face. That’s what they was saying. Me, I weren’t surprised, though. I was expecting you, as it happens. And now, look at you: here you are.”
“Yes, Well. Family. Loyalty and all that.”
He looked at me sort of sideways.
“Loyalty,” he said, as if trying the sound of the word in his mouth, “Now that’s not something your family’s had much use of lately, is it?”
“Well.” I said, “There it is. There is no family now. Just me.”
“There’s the pity, ain’t it? Time was when your family meant something. Time was when your family and mine was like that.”
He held up two stubby gold-ringed fingers, crossed.
“Like that we was, in your old grandad’s day.”
And indeed this had been so. Sir Nicholas and my grandfather were once partners in a Blackfriars tallow-rendering yard, and friends too, until it all came to a sudden and acrimonious end, way back when my mother was still alive. It ended when plain Nick Kidd, as he then was, greased and bribed his way to the baronetcy my social-climbing grandfather thought would be his by rights but conspicuously failed to achieve, despite the schools and hospitals he founded in his own name, and despite his breathtaking donations to colleges with royal connections. There was shouting and recrimination, and accusations of treachery and backstabbing, and the upshot of it all was that my grandfather stormed out of the business in a temper and never went back.
Since then the Kidds were no friends of ours or we of theirs.
My grandfather always had it that Sir Nicholas would never be content until he saw the Hanningfords ground down into the dirt. A bit harsh, I thought. In the end, though, it was my father who did that to us. And now Sir Nicholas had come all the way from London to gloat over our final humiliation. My final humiliation, I should say, since I was now the only one left.
“Well,“ I said, “It was very good to meet you, Sir Nicholas, after all this time. But if you’ll excuse me…”
Sir Nicholas reached out and took hold of my arm, gripping it tight.
“I want a word with you,” he said.
“Everyone does today.”
“I’m sure they do. But they can wait. Because I’m not everyone.”
“Of course, but…”
“And I want to talk to you about something. Some unfinished business of your father’s.”
“A scheme of his. You know what I’m talking about, boy?”
“Oh God!” I groaned, “Not you as well!”
There were certain people I would have expected to be taken in by my father’s ‘schemes,’ but Sir Nicholas was not one of them. Not by a long way. Our neighbours, for example: I’d expected it from them. And the biggest landowner thereabouts, the Earl of Essex, a devout and noted Puritan.
People said he went that way after the humiliation of his wife divorcing him for non-consummation of his marriage, but whatever the reason he was desperately holy, and when my father, in one of his more plausible moments, offered him the chance to finance what he was led to believe would be the founding of a whole host of austere and Godly chapels throughout the length and breadth of the country “to help bring about the Rule of the Saints on Earth”, or some such pious nonsense, he’d jumped at the chance, and more fool him.
But Sir Nicholas I’d always imagined to be too hard-headed and shrewd ever to give my father so much as the time of day without first insisting on full cash payment for it, in advance.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what the scheme was, but did he ask for any money from you, to cover his expenses?”
“You’re damn right he did, boy. And I’II tell you this – I gave him it.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. There’s nothing I can do about it now. I’m just sorry.”
“Are you now? And would that be his ring you’re wearing there, boy?”
I swiftly shoved my free hand into my coat pocket, mumbling something about how, unfortunately, I really had to be off now, and I tried to turn to take my leave.
Sir Nicholas’s fingers dug painfully into my muscle.
“You don’t want to that,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to twist away, “But I must be going.”
“Trust me. You don’t want to be going out that way.”
I yanked myself free.
“I’ll go where I damn well please.” I said, somewhat louder than I’d intended to and causing heads to turn; and then I dusted myself down and turned smartly on my heel.
It was then that I heard the commotion outside.
Crossing to the open door I saw, across the churchyard, the open carriage pulled up at the gates, and the surge at the lych-gate as a dozen burly thugs armed with wooden clubs forced their way roughly through the throng of mourners, pulling men bodily out of the way and casting them aside; and they were all of them wearing the orange sash of the Earl of Essex’s personal bodyguard.
And then I saw him, Robert Devereaux, the pudgy-faced Puritan Earl himself, bustling his way down from his carriage and across the space that his men were clearing, and calling out as he went.
“Hanningford! Hanningford! Where is he? Where is the spawn of that lying Devil?”
I felt Sir Nicholas’s hand on my shoulder.
“I think you might want to come this way, boy.” he said.
And this is how I came to follow Sir Nicholas Kidd back up the side-aisle of the church on the day of my father’s funeral: back up the side-aisle and through the vestry, where a low oak door opened out to the rear of the churchyard, to where two horses stood tethered to the churchyard fence, saddled and ready to take us to London.