(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 17: POLEY: THE CLEAVER

Moll Cutpurse. I based Meg on her.
Moll Cutpurse. I based Meg on her.

From 10 August 1540 onward, the Privy Council clerks acted as the Council’s principal aides, working not for one but for all, and as subject to the precariousness of politics and events as the Councillors themselves.

Secretaries, Statesmen, and Spies

Jacqueline D. Vaughan


It was mid-morning and Robert Poley was in high and determined spirits. Yesterday had been a wild ride of success and mischance but he was intent on making this day be entirely under the benevolent eye of Dame Fortune. His humors were high and his blood fairly spun in his veins. He knew where he had to go and the laborious upstream rowing of a wherryman was much too slow for his mood. His rapid pace took him westward along Conning Street to Watling and past St Paul’s and out the city walls at Ludgate. The streets were still muddy from the night’s rain and he had to step quickly on occasion to avoid being splashed by passing wagons and coaches.

He took basic precautions, doubled back a few times, stopped here and there to see if any of those among the crowds of people in the streets stopped along with him, if any of the faces were familiar. By the time he passed through Ludgate, he was reasonably sure that he was not being followed.

His goal was a short distance along Fleet Street, towards the Temple Bar, that old barrier between the districts. This was where John Middleborough lived. John’s name had occurred to him last night as he left Meg’s tavern with a full purse. John was a clerk high in the offices of the Exchequer. He and Poley had played cards together with some frequency in the past and, in point of fact, Poley owed him a good amount of coin from the last time they had met over a table. Which explained why Poley had been avoiding the man for the last few months. John, however, was a great source of Whitehall gossip and very knowledgeable about those who worked in the chambers of Her Majesty’s government. Poley had found his insight and observations most useful in the past and hoped, with the help of debts paid in full, that he might be so again.

With an encouraging bit of luck, Poley found John at home, not yet left for his duties upriver at Whitehall. He was a stocky fellow, with thinning sandy hair and a beard kept trimmed close and neat in Court fashion.

“I’ve just come into a goodly sum of coin and, of course, my first thought was of the debts I owe you.”

“Of course.” John’s tone was dry.

“At final count, how much do I owe you?”

John considered for a moment. “Didn’t we write it down, when last we played? Yes, I think we did.” He rummaged through his desk, upended several books, muttering to himself the entire time. He finally found what he sought marking a place in book of poetry. He looked at it, angled to best catch the light coming through the window. Then he handed it over to Poley. “Here. Does this match with your recollection?”

It did, unfortunately enough. His luck had been damnably bad, that night, and looked to be little better right now. He had held some faint hope that John would have accepted some half remembered figure, a figure a good deal smaller than the one which was accompanied by his signature on the piece of parchment. “Three pounds seven pence. Indeed, that matches my memory exactly.” Poley unbuttoned his doublet,reached inside, and pulled out a small but full purse. He bounced it lightly on his palm to fix John’s attention on the beguiling jingle of coin. “I’m short of small coin this morning. Why don’t we call it four pounds even?” He grinned where no one could see at the naked look of surprise that set up shop on John’s face.

“Why, that, I mean, well.” John swallowed hard and got control of his words. He coughed. “What I mean to say is that would be marvelously fine. You’re not only a man of your word, Bob Poley, but a greatly generous one was well.” His gaze tracked the movement of Poley’s hand as he plucked pound coins out of the purse one by one and laid them in a clinking stack on his desk. When Poley laid the last coin in the stack but kept his finger there on the coins, John’s mouth made a wry and understanding twist. “It’s nice to see that you haven’t changed. Bob Poley, the man who won’t do one thing if he can do two things. How can I be of service?”

“You were always quick, John. That’s how I come to owe you these coins. Yes, there is something that you can help me with.”

John reached out to where his gown hung on the wall by his desk. “Will this be something that I can help you with quickly? I needs must get to Whitehall presently. Sir William is a very badger and I try not to raise his ire by coming into work late.”

The hook set, Poley took his finger from the stack of coins and settled himself comfortably on a bench set against the wall. “I won’t be keeping you long. All I need is some of the fruits of your knowledge. I need to know everything that you know about one Adam Denby. He works close to the Privy Council.”

“Denby. Denby.” John muttered to himself as he shrugged on his gown. “Yes, I know of whom you speak.” He came around the desk, swept up the coins, and then leaned back against the desk facing Poley. “Adam Denby is an assistant to Secretary William Waad, who is now one of the two principal Secretaries for the Privy Council. Denby is close to Waad, sees him as his patron, and through him, Lord Bourghley. Denby’s from Dorset; family’s minor gentry with ambitions for more, though they have Catholicism in their past. Denby married well, so it’s possible that the Catholic taint passed from him when his parents pledged to the Church of England.”

“You say that he’s close to Waad. What duties does he perform for the Secretary?”

“Writing of letters and sometimes courier missions to the Continent. Denby speaks French and so has been sent with messages to Paris twice that I know of. Waad values Denby’s observations of events over there. Rumor has it that there’s a good chance he might succeed Waad when Waad retires.”

Poley rose and straightened his doublet. “You might start spreading the rumor that suspicion has fallen upon Denby and that he’s under investigation. That around him hangs the odor of Rome.”

John looked expressionless at Poley for a moment. “That’s big game that you’re hunting, Bob. And I know that you have no patron, not with Sir Francis so recently dead. Your aim best be true. You best not miss.”

“When it comes to this kind of hunting, I’m one of the best, John. Start spreading the word.” With that, he tipped his hat to John and exited the room, leaving him there, still leaning against his desk and now gnawing fitfully at a thumbnail.     

Leaving John’s house, Poley’s mood of excitement was undiminished, sharpened, if anything. I’ve got a bead on that bastard now. I know how he’s getting his information, how he knows me so well. And now that I now know who he reports to, I know who must be made to believe Denby a traitor. Whitehall’s my next stop, spread coin and rumors about Denby’s true allegiance. If I can get people to start doubting him, there’ll be fewer to protect him when I make my run. Aflame with confidence and direction, he made to punch fist into palm but stopped motionless at the sight of the man waiting for him across the street from John’s house.

It was a bit strange, the difference between Meg and Ollie the Straight. Both had clawed their way out of the gutter, leaving bodies and blood behind them in a snail’s track of violence. But Meg wore her clothes with an assurance and naturalness, while her lieutenant never looked quite right. Standing in front of Poley, dressed in modest but well tailored clothes, falling band collar, half-cloak, doublet and breeches in dark colored wool, the lean saturnine man gave off an air of ill-fittedness, as if some rawhead bloodybones was going remove its mask at any moment. Poley knew better than to give any sign of his disquiet. “Master Sleight. How did you know I was here?” He kept his tone politely enquiring, one professional hunter to another, pitched so to carry over the racket being made by the carpenter and his apprentices who were working on the house behind them.

“You were marked going out Ludgate. Word quickly found its way back to Meg.” Ollie’s tone was as grey as his eyes.

“Does your mistress require something of me?”

“Your mistress too now, pursuivant. And yes, she has business that requires you to attend upon her.”

“Is the matter pressing? I ask because I have urgent business up in Whitehall. If perhaps I could be at her side later today, that would suit me better.”

Ollie shook his head. “Don’t play the fool. She orders, you obey. You know that’s how it is. Come with me. I’m to take you to her.” Without looking behind him to see if Poley was following, Ollie moved off down the road, picking his way between the people.

Meg was only a short walk away, further away from the city. She was waiting with another manservant across the street from a building that was being torn down. It looked as if it might have been something fine, perhaps back in the day of the Queen’s sister, but now it was in sad repair. It had clearly been abandoned for some time, the roof decayed and the chimney slumped. Workmen swarmed all over it, moving up and down ladders and scaffolds, carrying what could be re-used, throwing that which was trash. A common enough sight in London and its surroundings, a house bought for cheap, repaired, and then sold for an eye watering profit.

Poley approached Meg and made his bow. “Milady, I was given word that you wished to see me?”

Her hat was a particularly fine one this day, tall, green, with a wisp of veil hanging from one side. Her clothes were equally fine. “I need to talk with the man who bought that house. He’s there now, supervising the workers. He recently bought a piece of the customs trade for tax farming purposes. I wish to do business with him and require an introduction. I believe that you and he are acquainted, so you will serve to introduce me.”

Poley nodded agreeably. “I would be honored. What’s the gentleman’s name?” Thank fuck. I make the introductions, there’s some deal done, and I can be about my business. Shouldn’t take that long, I can get up to Whitehall with plenty of time.

“Edward Abbot. He’s high up in the Customs House.”

“Ah, yes, I know the man. Your sources were right, he and I have done business on occasion, a matter of keeping me informed of smuggled Catholic items of religious significance. Though I must warn you, he is prideful and most high-handed. And what name should I use to introduce you?”

“Margaret Taverner.”

“A good honest name.” Poley took a risk. “It suits you well.” After Meg let the impertinence go with only a look and lifted eyebrow, Poley gestured in the direction of the building. “Shall we be about our business, Milady?”

The house had been grand enough to have a courtyard facing the street, the enclosing wall now shedding bricks like fleas leaving a dying dog. The group of them, Poley, Meg, Ollie, and the manservant entered through a gateway whose gate was a pile of worm eaten lumber piled to one side. Poley recognized Edward Abbot standing in the center of courtyard, giving orders to a foreman, pointing to the workers on the scaffolds and being very emphatic and hectoring about something. A not overly tall man, his belly swollen and his face filled with years of good eating, he was well dressed in rich cloth and rings flashed in the sun as he first gestured at the house then jabbed his finger at the foreman.

Poley took a moment before they were noticed to lean close to Meg. “His choler is high. This might not be the best time to approach him with business dealings.”

“I’ve dealt with men in high temper all the time. I’m not dissuaded by a spray of spit and some harsh words. Do your job and don’t worry about me.”

Poley shrugged. “As you wish, Milady.” He pasted a smile on his face and strode forward. “Master Abbot! I hope that this day finds you well?”

“And this time, make sure it’s done correctly!” Abbot finished with the foreman and turned to Poley. His eyes narrowed and then he recognized him. “Robert Poley. Good day to you.” His tone was scarcely welcoming. “I’m afraid that I am very busy at the moment, as you can see. What can I do for you?”

Poley looked around at all the work being done and let an admiring tone creep into his voice. “This indeed has the look of a great undertaking. Fortune must be favoring you indeed. And what’s this I hear about you buying into the Customs House tax farming? ‘Tis no wonder that you can pay for such a work as this mansion.”

“I’ve found Fortune to be a chancy mistress at best.” Abbot couldn’t resist turning lecturing and prideful. “For me, hard work is the best path to success. Hard work and attention to detail.” He turned to shout at a worker carrying a hod of bricks off a ladder. “Not in that pile! Those can re-used! They go in the other pile!”

“It’s because of that eagle eye that I’m here today. I have been instructed to bring an opportunity to your attention.”

“What sort of opportunity?” Abbot was still distracted.

“I believe that I will let the lady explain for herself.”

That got Abbot’s attention. “I beg your pardon? A woman? Are you completely crack-brained, Poley? You want me to discuss some matter of business with a woman? Even you must know that they have no head for business, for they are too ruled by the heart, too flighty.”

“And yet, we are ruled by a most puissant queen, are we not? Is not England peaceful and wealthy while all the rest of Europe bleeds and screams?”

Abbot harrumphed and gestured irritably. “Well, to be sure, you understand what I mean. The queen is no ordinary woman.”

“And neither is Margaret Taverner. She is a wealthy London businesswoman who took over her husband’s business at his untimely passing and has made it prosper greatly. Upon my honor, you will not regret spending a few moments of your time in conversation with her. The result will be most profitable, that I swear.”

Abbot acquiesced with a shrug. “Well, if you say so, Poley. Very well, I’ll meet with her. But I’ll hold you responsible should my time be wasted.”

“I thank you, Master Abbot.” Poley turned and nodded to Meg. “You are most kind.”

Meg made her way across the courtyard. Poley had to admit, she looked very fine, in her scarlet outfit, and she moved very confidently. “Master Edward Abbot, I have the honor and the pleasure to present to you Widow Margaret Taverner.”

Meg curtsied and Abbot returned a polite bow. Poley stepped back a little to remove himself from the conversation. He had no interest in any scheme of Meg’s and there was much for him to think upon. He spent the next few minutes in busy internal contemplation, making plans, imagining how Denby could thwart them, refining the plans. He chafed at the hole in his planning left by Moody’s lack of word; he had no idea if Nick were taken or not, even if he was running for England. He was jerked back to the business at hand by a bellow from Abbot.

“My God, Madam! How dare you speak to me in such a manner! How dare you suggest such things!”

What the fuck just happened? Did she proposition him? Poley immediately knew that was impossible.

“Leave here at once or I’ll set the law on you!”

Meg’s faint and urbane smile never wavered. “Master Abbot, there is no need for such threats. This is business that I speak of, it is nothing personal, I make no insults to you. You need to calm yourself and consider my proposal.”

Poley thought for an instant that an apoplectic fit would carry Abbot away on the spot. His face turned a most alarming color and he gaped like a hooked fish. There was no appearance that he was taking Meg’s advice in any way.

Finally he found his voice again. “I’ll consider nothing but making it my duty to see you whipped and in the stocks, you foul baggage! Yes, whipped and maybe even cropped! Jenkins! Jenkins, get this whore out of here!” With his manservant, a burly gent with a single eyebrow, summoned and hurrying over, Abbot turned to Poley. “And you, you wretched dunnykin diver into other people’s affairs! What possessed you to bring this slattern to me? I could easily have you in front of the law as well, Poley, I truly could!”

Poley glanced around to see what action Ollie was taking to protect his mistress. To his surprise, Ollie seemed to be walking over to the side of the courtyard to engage the foreman in conversation.

Jenkins approached Meg and grabbed her hard by the upper arm. “Move your ass, you-”

Poley’s attention was taken up by the finger that Abbot was waving in his face and the need to to make some sort of excuse. So he did not notice what precisely happened.

Meg made a fast movement, there was a flash of shiny steel, and Jenkins shrieked in agony and disbelief. Poley suddenly found himself paying much less attention to Abbot. Jenkins reeled back, gripping his arm, trying to stem the blood that audibly splashed onto the dirt. Meg stepped delicately around the bloody mud. Her arm made a tight sharp swing. The bloody silver cleaver at the end of her arm got buried in Jenkins’ throat, stopping his screams.

The silence in the courtyard was deafening. All eyes, all ears were on Meg as she strolled towards Abbot. Poley could hear her steps crunch in the dirt. The hair on the back of his neck rose when he realized she was humming to herself.

Meg stopped in front of Abbot. Reached out, took a handful of his gown and cleaned her cleaver. The man’s face was a stricken white. His mouth gaped wordlessly, a shiny thread of spittle suspended from an upper lip. He tried to move backward but Meg held his gown in a firm grip. She wasn’t even looking directly at him, but was intent on getting every last spot of blood off her cleaver. “This is my proposal.” Her voice was low and even. “I am to be your partner in your business with the duties that you’ve bought from the Customs House. You will tell me when valuable cargoes come through, what ships are carrying these cargoes.” She took a minute to raise her cleaver to the sunlight, twist it back and forth to examine it for spots. Reflections danced across the face of the house. Her words never faltered. “All profits you make, you will give me a share. You will employ men of mine and they will keep you honest. For in time, I know that the force of this lesson will leave you.” Finally the cleaver gleamed spotless. “There. Nice and clean.” Meg released Abbot’s gown.

He staggered back as if his legs had turned to jelly. His voice was hoarse. “How? How do you expect to get away with this? You’ve murdered Jenkins. Right here. Right in front of me. You’re mad. Possessed by demons.”

Meg blew out an exasperated breath. With a quick twist of her arm, she secreted her cleaver out of sight under her clothes at the small of her back. “Master Abbot. Listen and listen clear. You need to keep one simple fact in your head. One simple fact and all will be believable. The one fact. I am not an idiot.” She tucked away some loose hair back underneath her hat and made sure it sat right on her head. “Do you think that I would have done this had there been any chance that you could bring me before the Justices? You are the only one who can say I was even here today. I have any number of people who will swear that I never left my home this day.”

Abbot gave out a disbelieving bark of laughter. “I knew it! Possessed you are!” He flailed his arm about to indicate the scaffolded house and the workers perched silent there, all their labors ceased and their attention fixed on the bloody events below. “What of all these men? They are all witnesses. They all saw you cut down poor Jenkins!”  

Pressure in his chest reminded Poley that he needed to breathe. He took in air and began to collect his wits. All his plans for an afternoon of spreading rumors in Whitehall had scattered like mice at the sight of a hawk. He realized that he’d been no better than Abbot and had neglected to keep one simple fact in his mind. Meg was crime queen of London. That meant she was smarter and more dangerous than any woman had the right to be. He would have to take extra care in juggling the conflicting demands of his pursuit of Denby and Meg’s tasks. Any mistiming would see him dead from either.

He quickly looked around the courtyard for Ollie. It was odd that he hadn’t been there for his mistress. Poley spotted him with a companionable hand on the foreman’s shoulder and the shape of Meg’s plan began to become clear even before she spoke.

“Those men?” Meg took the time for a leisurely survey of the men. Ollie nodded at her. “Of the many mistaken beliefs you hold one is that these men are in your employ. When in fact, they all work for me.” Another leisurely glance saw all the men doff their caps to her. “I say again, Master Abbot, one simple fact. That is all you need. I. Am. Not. An. Idiot. Good day to you.” She moved away and called to Ollie. “Master Poley will walk me back. You stay here and make sure things are settled.” She nodded towards Abbot.  “Make sure he understands his part.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem, Milady. He looks biddable as a lamb after your lesson.” Ollie gestured at the body of the unfortunate Jenkins. “The Thames for that one?”

“Or the foundation of this house. Whatever you think is best.”

Abbot gaped in disbelief. He looked as if he might collapse at any minute, whey faced and weak kneed. The last that Poley saw of him was Ollie approaching him companionably, as if there was no body bleeding out onto the dirt.

Poley and Meg walked in silence for a bit, heading back towards the city along Fleet Street. The street was its usual busy self, a small herd of sheep being driven from the nearby fields to a shambles causing all sorts of havoc among the wagons, carts, and other traffic. Eventually, Poley decided that he had to do what he could to salvage the rest of his day. “That was a neat piece of work, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen better.”

Meg spit lady-like between her teeth. “That? That was just a bit of the frighteners.”

“Even so, to have it all planned out like that.” Poley stopped, struck by a sudden thought. “Wait. I just realized, being particularly slow today. Were those actually your men working at the site?”

Meg grinned tight-lipped and ferocious. “I was wondering if you’d think of that. But, aye, they were my men. They work for a builder who I own. They got word this morning that something might occur and that they were to do as they were told. I could have bluffed Abbot, true enough, but I wanted some extra eyes on him to make sure just how he’d jump.”

“A nice piece of work, all together.” Jostled by a passing apprentice, Poley lengthened his stride to come up alongside Meg again. “But I must ask, will you be needing my services any more today? For there are diverse matters requiring my most strict attention and I would like your permission to deal with them.”

“Matters relating to your work as an intelligencer? ”

“Aye. I now must do more with less, for I have no Court patron, no money but what I can raise myself, no direct help from the Crown.”

“But you have a patron now. You are in my service.”

It was at this point that Poley began to choose his words with even more care than usual, Jenkins’ body not even being cold back there in the builder’s yard. “That I am, Milady. And I am at your disposal, to be used as you see fit. But I would like to make two points, if I may?” He waited until she nodded. “One. No matter what I might do for you, and do willingly, I am an Englishman. And England is under threat. We both know that. The Armada was just two years ago. My work as an intelligencer stops the threats that are less obvious but no less dangerous than that fleet. The threats continue and I would work to do my part to defeat them. Two. With a court patron, maybe even Lord Burghley himself, I can be of even more use to you.”  

“Those are both good points.” Her tone was encouraging. “Especially the last one.” She walked on for a bit more, clearly thinking it over. “What threat are you working against at this time?”

Growing relief made Poley a bit cocky. “There is a worm at the heart of Her Majesty’s government and I mean to winkle it out.”

“Let no one ever say that you think small.”

“I know this to be true. I first suspected such a thing when my networks in the Low Countries were rumbled by the Spaniards. All of my agents taken except for one and I have faint hope for him. But Nick Applethorpe is a resourceful bastard and I have high hope that he’ll make it back here alive.”

Meg stopped dead in the street and turned her head to look directly at him. The brim of her hat cast her face into shadow. “What was that name you just said?”

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