The South Bank has always been associated with entertainment and pleasure … The prostitutes of the Bankside, practicing their trade within the “Liberty” of the Bishop of Winchester, were known as “Winchester geese”… The area also acquired a reputation for dubious taverns and doubtful pleasure gardens.

London: The Biography

Peter Ackroyd

Even though the sun was only a hands breadth above the horizon, it already shone red and yellow through the murk like a rotten cracked egg above London. Helmsley and Jean had been rowed ashore, through the forest of ships in the London Pool, just after dawn and now they were finally finished with the Customs House. De Langhe’s papers had passed inspection without the slightest twitch of an official eyebrow.

Helmsley had even been congratulated on his service in the Protestant armies of Bohemia, an honor he had made all dissemblance to accept with thankfulness and humility. He passed on invented tales of Catholic perfidy averted by only the most stalwart application of Protestant might and the grace of God. In truth, the encounter did him good. It made clearer in his mind who he was supposed to be, a hard-fighting Protestant soldier, a killer of Catholics and proud of it. Outwardly, he was returned after a long absence and happy to be home. Inwardly, he seethed.

He took his leave from the Customs officials. Their good wishes rang in his ears like screeches from an ungreased wheel. The emotions that he had felt, back in the church of St. Lawrence in Brussels, were made stronger by the sights and sounds around him. He and Jean pushed through the crowds, heading up towards the bridge.

He felt out of sorts and could not quite put his finger on the reason why. True, the mission had not gone precisely smoothly, with Nick getting all the way to England, London in fact, but he had had missions of much worse complexity. No, he was just impatient to get the job over with and return home. That thought struck him odd and he almost stumbled to a halt, which would have been unfortunate, given that he would have been almost certainly been run down into the dust of the street by the man pushing a barrow loaded high with fish who was right at his heels.

He slid aside, out of the way and proceeded on his way. Home. Getting home. And here, in the middle of London, the foremost city of England, home for me, an Englishman, is Brussels. Too many years abroad, too many changes here. ‘Tis all heretics here now, no place for me to worship freely. I fight against them, to be sure, fight to bring back the True Religion. But even if I were successful, would I be able to think of this as home again? Fuck it. This is stupid, to have mooncalf thoughts in the middle of a fucking operation. Get the fat fuck, get the papers, get home.

He slowed his steps, so as to allow Jean to come up besides him. He leaned towards the smaller man. “Moody said that we were to appear at a tavern, the Nag’s Head, each day when the big church bell tolled six in the evening. If he’s not there, we come back each day. The tavern is across the river,” Helmsley pointed, “in the district called Southwark. We’ll cross the bridge, find a place to stay, and then scout out the Nag’s Head to make sure that the Queen’s men do not have it under watch. It’s always possible, more than likely, I would say, that Moody has sold us out.”

Jean nodded, no expression crossed his face. “He did that, he dies.”

At the far end of the bridge, the crush of people lessened slightly. Passing underneath the spiked heads, Helmsley sent a silent prayer to the martyrs of the faith whose corporeal remains were above and whose souls were undoubtedly looking over his mission.

Placards and broadsheets glued to any available wall advertised plays and other entertainments available on this side of the river. In some ways, Helmsley felt he had much in common with the Puritan street preacher fulminating against such impious entertainments. His time in Catholic Europe, especially since he had been in the service of Spain, had left him infused with a dour religiosity. The frivolities of these plays, the bawdy jokes and disgusting displays of men dressed as women, all of them made him angry and vaguely embarrassed. How was it that God had not struck down this kingdom already? He remembered how sick he had felt at the news of the Armada’s failure. He wasn’t so taken with himself that he thought that this mission would be the cause of bringing England back to the Faith, but he kept close in his heart the hope that he and his efforts would be of some essential service to the final victory.

There was a rough, jostling vitality to the crowds, which were made up of disreputable people, in the main. Helmsley saw Jean keep his gaze locked on one spot as he walked, head swiveling. He looked to see what had caught Jean’s attention and it was a whore in an upper-story window of a bawdy house, playing with her bare breasts to gain any passing custom that might have the coin to spend. And that set the tenor of the crowd. There were mountebanks of all persuasions: someone running a hide-the-pea game on a small table next to an alley that would provide a convenient escape route, someone else leading a muzzled bear to some fighting pit, an establishment promising an education in the latest Italian sword fighting techniques next to a place that assured a quick and painless removal of bladder stones – the shrieks coming from inside put a lie to the painless part of the sign.

They found a place to stay, a nondescript lodging house set back several streets from the river. They left their bags there and then went back out onto the streets of Southwark. They had a few hours until the meeting and Helmsley wanted to make sure that there were no eyes on him before he went to the Nag’s Head.

This side of the river was filled with people entering London via the coast road, leading to the port at Gravesend. There was a constant stream of coaches, wagons, people on horseback, both coming to London and leaving. The smell of horseshit was an ever-present perfume.

There didn’t appear to be anyone on their trail. As Helmsley and Jean moved through the crowds, no faces showed up a suspicious number of times. In truth, Helmsley hadn’t expected there to be any. With the disarray left by the death of that heretic bastard Walsingham, the English intelligencers lacked the wherewithal to be aware of his presence.

Finally the church clock struck the time. The two men headed for the rendezvous with Moody.

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