(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 19: HELMSLEY: TOO LATE


At that time Antwerp resembled post-Second World War Vienna, awash with spies, counter-spies, lies, and double dealing.

The Elizabethan Secret Service

Alan Haynes


“He’s gone.” Jean’s tone was phlegmatic.

“I know that we are to bow our heads and accept God’s trials as a proof of our worthiness in His eyes, but sometimes I do wish that He could see fit to ease our road. After all, we do His business!” Helmsley threw his hat and gloves on the table, ran his fingers through his hair. Then regained his senses and became aware of what outrages he had just uttered. In a fever of repentance, he pulled his St. Christopher medal out from under his doublet, kissed it, and silently begged God’s forgiveness for such a miserable sinner as himself.

Jean didn’t even look up from his bowl of mussel stew.

Helmsley tucked the medal away, gathered himself, and sat down at the table across from Jean. “So. Once again a wounded fat man is able to defeat men hired to the task of stopping him. Do you think he’s still in the city? Piet said that the fight took a lot out of him. He can’t have gone far.”

“As far as possible. Maybe England.” Jean took a long pull from the tankard at his right hand.

“Damnation. You’re probably right.” Helmsley thought for a moment, then gave his orders to Jean. “So, if he’s on his way to England, London, no doubt, will be his ultimate destination. He will return to his masters. Therefore we follow by the quickest route and catch him before he does. Come, we must visit Master Verstegan and gather the necessary papers to allow our entry into London as soldiers returning from fighting Catholics on the Continent. We’ll try to find him at his bookshop first. I’ve not been there before, but Master Owen has told me where to find it.”

Jean rose to his feet to follow Helmsley and paused to drain the last of the broth from the bowl before leaving the tavern.  

For some reason, Antwerp always made Helmsley melancholy. He knew that part of it stemmed from the clear signs of the city’s decay. Empty houses, abandoned warehouses, unused wharves. All of these testified to what once was and now was no more. And then he would come upon a burned out house that no one had bothered to repair or rebuild and his melancholy would become suffused with guilt. For even though he had not been present at the event, the sack of Antwerp had been inflicted by the very same forces to whom he had pledged his efforts. The Spanish troops had mutinied for lack of pay and had sought their recompense from the helpless and loyal citizens of Antwerp. He had no doubts about the rightness of his cause – Elizabeth the heretic queen had to be removed from the throne of England and her damnable religion swept from the land – but sometimes he wondered about the righteousness of the allies to the cause for which he fought. Would true soldiers of the Lord have mercilessly pillaged, sacked, raped their co-religionists? There were no Protestants left in the city by the time of the sack. They had all fled either north to the United Provinces or across the Channel to England. All those who suffered from the depredations of the riotous tercios had been Catholics.

And yet, this was another reason that Helmsley disliked Antwerp. It made him think such disloyal and weak thoughts. The cause for which he fought was righteous and as such, must be fought with all weapons at hand. Such actions as the sack of Antwerp were to be regretted, but they should be no reason to abandon the struggle.  

Fuck, I hate Antwerp. The sooner I get out of this city, the better. Why is this task so difficult? He’s one wounded fat man on the run. We’re in the service of the Lord and he’s a whoreson heretic. Why can’t we catch him? Helmsley deliberately kept his thoughts from what would happen if he failed. He quickened his pace to the extent that Jean had to trot to keep up.

The bookshop of Richard Verstegan was on a side street by the Town Hall, across the square from the cathedral. It was one of several bookshops along the street, as well as shops providing supplies to the book trade; two stationers and a bindery. As they entered, Helmsley and Jean were enveloped in the smell of paper, parchment, and leather. Jean sneezed loudly, spraying spit, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.  The shop was cluttered with tables and shelves displaying the wares for sale. Casting an eye over them, Helmsley could see that they were primarily of a religious nature, which was not surprising, given Verstegan’s closeness with Cardinal Allen and the other English Catholics in Flanders. There were titles in Latin, English, Spanish, and French; hymnals, lives of saints, sermon collections, and the like. Verstegan clearly catered to an international crowd. There were two other men looking through the books. A clerk came up to Helmsley and addressed him in Flemish. Jean was pointedly ignored.

“As you can see, Mynheer, we have a wide variety of titles here. Were you looking for anything in particular?”

“Is Master Verstegan in? I have some business with him.”

“I’m afraid that he’s stepped out. Would you like to leave word for him when he returns?”

“My business is rather urgent. Do you happen to know where he might be found?”

The clerk took a minute to look at Helmsley, gauged his accent and clothes. “He had business at the house of Adrian de Langhe. He is the City Postmaster and runs his business out of Black Sisters Street. Look for the sign of crossed quills.”

Helmsley bowed and pressed a groschen into the clerk’s hand. “Thank you.” He gestured to Jean to follow him and they left the shop.

Helmsley was familiar with de Langhe, as the man was not only the postmaster for the city of Antwerp, he was also an important man in Owen’s networks. He used his office to send and receive any intelligence that any of Owen’s agents might need passed on. Because any traveler would have good cause to visit the postmaster to gather innocent mail, agents could come and go without comment.

And de Langhe had skills not limited to ensuring that the post was sent and received promptly. He was also the man to approach if one needed travel documents that would pass scrutiny. More than once, Helmsley had passed through the Customs House in London without the slightest question about his travels, due to the skill with which de Langhe forged his passport. Had the clerk at the bookshop not known Verstegan’s whereabouts, Helmsley would have tried de Langhe’s next.

Black Sisters Street was nearby the fabled Antwerp bourse. Back in the past, when Antwerp was the center of commerce for all of Western Christendom, the building, its shaded arcades, its wide courtyard had echoed with all the languages of the West and some of the East. It would have been thronged with merchants buying and selling everything from spices to wool to investments in herring fleets and all manner of goods in between. Now, the symbol of Antwerp was as desolate as the rest of the city. There were still some merchants and deals were still being cut, but nothing like the crowds of yesteryear. War and blockade had wrought such damage that Helmsley could actually hear his boot heels echo as he and Jean cut through the arcades that lined the sides of the courtyard. This path would not have been such a shortcut in the years past.

They exited the bourse through a side door and quickly found themselves on Black Sisters Street. There, de Langhe’s was a beacon of activity. Even if Helmsley had not already been familiar with it, the bustle of men and riders and coaches would have told him that this was the place he sought.

He pulled Jean aside as they entered the building’s courtyard. “Wander around. See what gossip you can pick up. Anything untoward about cross-Channel voyages or the state of English customs officials would be the most useful.” Jean nodded and ambled off towards the stables.

Helmsley kept his gaze quick, as he entered the two storey building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tall and lean printer. The front door of the building opened onto a large room, scattered with scuffed chairs and benches. A fireplace in one wall gave off some heat, and light was provided by the windows facing the courtyard and a number of candles on the tables. This was a place where people could gather to exchange news and gossip as they waited for their post. Helmsley strolled around the room, but Verstegan was not among those enjoying the company of the room.

As Helmsley moved to go back further into the building, to poke around the offices in the back, a door opened and Richard Verstegan came through. His gown was open over doublet and hose, everything a faded workmanlike black, stained here and there with splashes of darker black where ink had spilled.

His eyes widened with recognition and he strode towards Helmsley with a serious look. “Richard! It is good to see you.” Dutch was their common language. “I have had word from Brussels and was hoping that we would meet.”

“Master Verstegan! It is good to see you as well.” He leaned close to the printer, took his arm, and lowered his voice. “Perhaps we could speak out in the courtyard. It would not to do to have our mutual news be cast out onto the winds of Antwerp gossip.”

Verstegan soberly nodded. “I agree.” And they made their way to a secluded corner of the courtyard, where the sound of the nearby blacksmith hammering horseshoes served to mask their words.

Verstegan was direct and to the point. “Have you talked to Black Piet?”

“Aye, just this morning. He accounted to me the affray at the docks. But he could tell me nothing of what might have become of Crossby afterwards. Do you have any more intelligence? Is he still in Antwerp?”

“I was blessed with luck. As soon as Piet reported to me last night, I put the word out. I received intelligence that he had entered a low dive down by the docks. I sent two men there immediately with orders not to let him leave. At which point, my luck deserted me entire.”

Helmsley closed his eyes briefly. “Blood of Christ. Did he leave them alive?”

“Good news and bad. Yes, he did leave them alive and when they regained consciousness, they said that it was not Crossby who laid them out, for he seemed sick with ague and weak. Rather, it was a known smuggler, called Great-Thirst, who did the violence. So, on one hand, we know that he’s escaped us and sailed from the city with this smuggler, undoubtedly heading for London. That’s bad. On the other hand, he’s badly hurt and sickening. And we know where he’s going. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that good, but at least it’s not bad.”

“I have come to you anticipating a voyage to London and will need the necessary papers for myself and my man. Given that we are already here at de Langhe’s, we are saved some time.”

“And now here’s my last bit of news, which might have some bearing on your plans for how you proceed in London. Weighing it all, I judge it to be good news.”

“Praise God, we are deserving some scrap of good news. Say on”

“Yesterday, I received word from my agent in Vlissengen. He had been approached by a man who wished to get word to myself and Master Owen, knowing that we would be interested in what he had to sell.” Verstegan paused for effect. “And what he’s selling is Crossby.”

Helmsley’s manners deserted him entire. “The fuck he is.”

“The man calls himself Michael Moody and he says that he’s been hired by Robert Poley…”

“That fucking piece of shit.” The shock of this new element loosened Helmsley’s tongue.

The look on Verstegan’s face counseled patience and forebearance. “…been hired by Robert Poley to find Crossby and get him to London. Moody states that he’s open to other offers of employment and that if someone is of interest to Poley, that same someone might be of equal or greater interest to Hugh Owen. He said that he’d be in Vlissingen for some days and that he eagerly awaits word.”

Helmsley pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath, composing himself. “I don’t suppose that there is any chance that this Moody is a Catholic?”

“No, I am afraid not. I have not heard too much of this man, but what I have heard has been all bad. Very untrustworthy. Which is to our advantage, in this case. Makes it all the more believable that he’d turn against Poley for the chance of greater money.”

“That’s a very good point. The timing of this is strange, though. There is no way that he had Crossby when he passed his message to your man. At that time, Crossby was still here in Antwerp.”

“I noticed that myself. It would seem, then, that this Moody has knowledge of where Crossby will be and is confident that he can lay hands on him when the time comes.”

“I was planning on chasing Crossby to London on the evening tide, so it will be of no moment to stop in Vlissengen. Perhaps, if we have been truly blessed with luck, and about time too, for this has been a hagridden operation from the beginning. I will be able to capture Crossby without going to England.”

“If Moody does deliver Crossby, how will you reward him?”

“I’ll need a letter of credit to provide him with some money for handing over Crossby, not all that he’s asking, of course, but some.”

Verstegan nodded. “That seems a good way to go about it. I’ll have such a letter drawn up from the accounts that Master Owen has here.” He gestured back to de Langhe’s building. “Come. Let us go get the necessary papers for you to enter England and its holdings.”

De Langhe was as short as Verstegan was tall. The postmaster was up out his seat the minute that Verstegan and Helmsley were ushered in. He moved with the swagger of a short man. He came around his desk and clasped Helmsley’s hand. “Right, I remember you. I’ve sent you across the Channel, what, twice now? And you’re here with my printer friend because you need to try again?”

Helmsley returned the firm grip. “That’s the idea, Master de Langhe. At the very least, I need to get to Vlissingen soonest, but it’s very probable that I’ll have to continue on to London.”

“Well, then, let’s get you sorted out, shall we? I keep all the necessaries in the back office.”

As they exited de Langhe’s office, Verstegan went in the opposite direction, towards the front of the building. “I’ll leave you two to this business; I must be back to my shop for I have some orders to prepare for shipment. Helmsley, I’ll have the letters of credit for you by end of the day -”

“Before the evening tide, if you please.”

“As you say, before the evening tide. Master de Langhe, I thank you most wholeheartedly for your assistance in this matter and I shall make my gratitude very clear to Master Owen when I inform him of all that has occurred. I bid you good day.” And off he stalked, looking like a stork which had fallen into an inkpot.

De Langhe leaned in towards Helmsley. “A nice enough gentleman, but he does go on a bit.”

At the end of the hall was a locked door which de Langhe opened with one of the keys on a ring which hung around his waist. The room was bare except for a long table, several good candles, and a locked chest against the wall. It was to that chest that de Langhe went, pulling another key from a thin chain hidden around his neck. “I was thinking that we could use that same identity for you that we’ve used before. As far as I know it’s still a good one.”

“The English mercenary?”

“Aye. That’s the one. But, hearing what you said, about the evening tide to Master Verstegan, I’m afraid that I have a bit of bad news.”

Helmsley sighed deeply and kept close hold on his composure. “As I was saying to Master Verstegan just a while back, this entire operation has been cursed. So a bit more of bad luck will not surprise me. Say on, Master de Langhe, what obstacle has been placed in my path this time?”

De Langhe turned from where he was sorting through the contents of the chest and grinned at Helmsley. “It’s one of those, is it? Well, and I’m sure that you’ll triumph in the end. You are, after all, doing the Lord’s work. And while he may work in mysterious ways, he does, in the end, reward his servants.” He found what he was looking for in the chest and got up off his knees. He laid a parchment packet out on the table and lit several candles, so that an even light light was cast over the document. de Langhe bent a close eye onto the parchment but his words to Helmsley continue unabated. “It’s not much of an obstacle, but my man who does all my seals is out of town until tomorrow. You see, his brother lived up in Vilvoorde and recently died. So my man had to go up and deal with the estate and will and all of that. But he’ll be back tomorrow, like I said. And I can have everything else in readiness for him. My hands are good and I’ve got all the correct signatures down perfect, but when it comes to the seals necessary for this document, I think it’s better to leave it in his hands rather than mine.”

“If it can’t be helped, then it can’t be helped. I trust your expertise in this.” Helmsley moved closer to the table in order to observe what de Langhe was doing. “You said that I’d be using the same guise as before?”

De Langhe had opened an ink bottle and was carefully changing some of the letters and numbers on the document. His voice took on a distracted tone as he worked. “Aye. Thomas Featheridge. Soldier of fortune. Returning from Bohemia. Fighting for the Lutheran nobility there. You’ll be coming into Vlissingen from Emden.” He flattened out a piece of paper next to the documents he was working on. Glancing back and forth between the two of them, he added a signature and date to Helmsley’s papers. “Just putting the Emden portmaster’s signature in now.”  

“Don’t forget the necessary papers for my man, Jean.”

“Not to worry. Since he’ll be traveling as your servant, his are easier to make than yours.”

Watching the man work, Helmsley got restless, started to pace back and forth. When he began to crack his knuckles, de Langhe looked up from his work. “This is going to take a while. And, like I said, it can’t be finished until my seals man gets back.”

“Aye, from Vilvoorde. I remember.”

“So why don’t you go back to Master Verstegan’s and see if he can put you up until everything’s ready?” de Langhe’s tone was dry and it clearly wasn’t a question.

Helmsley had the grace to blush and he quickly took his leave from the postmaster forger. He made his way out of the building. He paused on the front steps and took the time to pull on his gloves and set his hat just right,  then he went and collected Jean from the stables. At Helmsley’s gesture from the doorway, he shrugged and left the dice game that had the grooms and stableboys enthralled.

“What’s the gossip?”

“Big fight at one of the quays. Crazy fucking Englishman killed a kid and some others. Pissed off that the city watch has done fuck all.”

“Do they think that the Englishman is still in the city?”

“Some say yes. Some say no. Some point fingers at Great-Thirst because he left half loaded.”

“Well, for once gossip has it right. He did leave with Great-Thirst.”

“We following?”

“Unfortunately, not right away. My papers to get us into England won’t be ready for two days.”

“Might not be bad.” Jean gestured to the west.

Helmsley looked in that direction and saw clouds boiling up on the horizon, towards where the Scheldt entered into the ocean. “You might be right about that. Looks like bad weather for whoever might be afloat.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *