See below post for 1st part of Chapter 1
Oliver Prior stared out a mullioned window in Whitehall Palace. He waited for Mister William Josephson, undersecretary and head of intelligence under King Charles II. While he bided his time, Oliver watched a ferocious gale wreak havoc. Winds roared down narrow lanes and screamed around corners. His eyes goggled when large trees crashed to the ground. Shutters snapped from windows and hurled away. The big, mullioned window where he stood bowed inward with the strong gusts.
It reminded him of when his sister had been killed. A staunch Puritan, his father christened her, Silence-Fair Prior, but everyone called her wee Pebble. Her death still haunted him, and he shook his head to remove the thoughts.
Gazing out the window again, he wondered why he’d been called here by the undersecretary. It must be important. Only a fool would venture out in such a wild storm.
He grimaced, knowing he must be that very fool. It took some doing to get here from his house on Knightrider Street in the City, with brickbats, roof tiles, tree pieces, and whatnot sailing like grenados about his head. He felt lucky to be whole and alive.
Great drafts blew their way through the hallways of Whitehall, and Oliver felt cold airs wrap around his ankles. He stepped from the window to the fireplace. The coal fire was warm, but spits of wind shot down the chimney, and sent spark showers from the hearth into the chamber. He feared shards of fire would set the rambling palace ablaze. It simply wouldn’t do, and he spread the fire with an iron, hoping to douse it.
With the fire put down, the room immediately started to cool.
He heard footsteps, and turned to the closed door of the undersecretary’s office. It opened, and Mister Josephson strode toward him. He was a tall, nicely assembled gentleman from the North Country. His speech proved it, though tempered after many years in London City.
Oliver bowed. “I’ve received your ciphered letter, and came hither soon as able.”
Josephson gazed beyond Oliver to the window. “You’re lucky you weren’t killed en route.”
Oliver turned to see a hat with froths of feathers scrape along the window. He ducked away, then straightened tall again, ashamed to have been so ruffled before a man who never seemed disturbed by anything.
He cleared his throat. “Aye, sir, `tis a jangle out there. What will you have of me?”
Josephson pulled his gaze from the winds and the objects flying about. “It is a Cicero matter.”
“Ah, domestic then,” Oliver said with a sigh. “And nonconformist, I reckon. The fanatics never cease in their hullabaloo. From what dark alley is this one?”
The undersecretary tsk-tsked. “You sound discontented, Prior. Please remember we are still a divided country. Just because the king is back in England, it hasn’t stopped the many supporters from Cromwell’s regime thinking bitter thoughts. They do not like how the Cavaliers force an Anglican hand.
“Our Parliament’s driving them underground, a dangerous thing. The Declaration of Breda back in `60 hasn’t done much good, and this new law of uniformity being tooted before the Lords will cause bitter strife, if approved.”
Oliver nodded. “Aye, and I’ve been hearing gossip this new hearth tax, if it comes about, is vexing most folk, Presbyterian or otherwise. Then, the king keeps getting Barbara Villiers with child, even with a new queen on the horizon.” He regarded the undersecretary. “Oiy, you can say I’m a mite weary of everyone’s heartburning, but not enough to disavow the work you have me do. What have you found, then?”
“There are plots afoot.”
He raised a brow. There were always plots afoot. Most of them with plans to kill an aristocrat, or the king, blow up a building or two, and run amok through the City. Oliver wondered why these were different. “How dangerous are these plots?”
Josephson pointed to a chair. “Have a seat.” Then he gazed at the hearth. “The fire is near burned out. We must have new coals put to it.”
Oliver sat on a plain chair, and straightened his doublet. “I dampened it. The wind sent sparks throughout the chamber.”
Josephson smiled, and settled on a chair with arm rests. He crossed a leg over the other. “Ever the thoughtful fellow, Mister Prior. Very nice.”
Oliver cleared his throat. “About the plots, then?”
“This is delicate, and I need someone I can trust.”
His heart perked up, and Oliver sat straighter. “Thank you, sir. You shall have it.”
“A cousin of a high person killed a man. We think he’s somehow with the fanatic nonconformists.” He paused, then added, “And in league with the Dutch.”
“Aye?” Oliver prodded. The bloody Hollanders weren’t generally part of English plots, but one never knew, did one? His mind racing, he wondered if the undersecretary would put him to sea, and immediately hoped not to be seasick… Then he realized this being a Cicero matter, and domestic, he’d not go anywhere.
Josephson continued, “We have a loud Presbyterian who lives on Harpe Lane hard by Tower Street. He and his wife have a little bakeshop near Baker’s Hall. He also works at the Custom House in London Pool.”
Not knowing where all this was going, Oliver blew out a puff of air. “Busy fellow. Where does he find time to plot?”
“That’s the interesting bit. We’ve ferreted out he only just received a post in Custom’s. The position came along most dandy when the world learned the king will marry a popish Infanta.”
Protestants of England did not much admire the king’s choice of a bride, but Oliver didn’t think on it. There were just too many papists in the world, making Protestant princesses few in number. He knew of some Protestant high ladies in the North Countries, but they were a scurvy lot, and not to be counted.
Something crashed loud outside and Josephson jerked to his feet. He faced Oliver. “The new queen’s dowry will bring trouble. The merchants of the City are chomping at the bit to cast their ships to sea and the East Indies.” He paused. “Where the Dutch have a strong foothold. They won’t like it if our merchants weigh anchor off one of their possessions. We’ve gained, and could lose much with the king’s union.”
Impatient as to where this was leading, Oliver only nodded.
Josephson tapped his fingers on his chin. “There’s more to this bakery business than meets the eye, Prior.”
Oliver gazed at the undersecretary. The man saw conspiracies everywhere, and in everything.
Josephson smiled. “Which brings me to why you are here.”
Oliver leaned forward. This part always brought him into a froth of desires, like gusts of lust. Burrowing into dens of conspiracies and plots without getting caught, befriending the rascals was an addictive thrill. He found it impossible to quit the business.
Being such a treacherous cheat would most likely bring him to an early demise, but he shrugged it off. No one cared for him. No one at all.
Oliver stood and met Josephson’s gaze. “I am ready to hear the full of it.”