As Mal and Ned walked up Long Southwark engrossed in their usual argument about which inn to visit, they were accosted by a well-dressed young man in a fashionable beaver hat.
“Maliverny Catlyn! By all that’s holy!”
He engulfed Mal in a hearty embrace and kissed him on both cheeks. His breath stank of wine.
“Ingram.” Mal forced a smile.
‘“What a surprise to see you here, you old dog! I thought you’d run off to France, like your brother.”
“I came back.” Mal said, refusing to rise to the bait. “What about you? Got that position with old Shrewsbury yet?”
Ingram looked glum. “About as much chance of that as the Devil coming back to straighten St Mary’s spire.”
Mal could not help but smile; the crooked spire of Chesterfield was famous even outside their home county.
“I’m at Lincoln’s Inn, studying,” Ingram went on, “or at least that’s what my father hopes. But you know what I think of the law.” He winked conspiratorially.
“Only too well,” Mal replied.
Ingram seemed not to notice the edge in his friend’s voice. “Join me for supper? Or have you eaten?”
“No, we— “
“Splendid. I know an excellent place not far from here.” He frowned at Ned. “Have we met?”
Mal glanced at Ned, then back at Ingram.
“Ingram, this is Edmund Faulkner, a good friend of mine. Ned, this is Piers Ingram of Thornlees Manor in Derbyshire; we were at Cambridge together.”
Ingram inclined his head, and Ned bowed awkwardly.
“Come along then, both of you,” Ingram said, draping an arm around Mal’s shoulder. “I could eat a horse.”
* * *
Ned trailed after the two older men, feeling hopelessly out of place. Mal so rarely talked about his past, it was easy to forget he was a gentleman’s son and a Cambridge scholar, as far above a mere scrivener as the lords in their gallery at the theatre. Only force of curiosity kept Ned from making an excuse to leave. This was a rare window on a part of his friend’s life he knew little about.
Ingram led them to the George, a large galleried inn on the high street. A former stopping place for thousands of pilgrims before King Henry forbade all such Popish superstitions, it now catered to the playgoers and other pleasure seekers who filled the suburb most evenings.
“Order what you like,” Ingram said. “Father’s paying.”
“Three pints of best, if you will,” Mal told the pot-boy. “And two dozen oysters, and a veal pie.”
Ned glanced around at the neighbouring tables. He seldom had the luxury of dining at a place like this. Judging by what he could see on other men’s plates, the portions were generous, and the pies were not the usual flaccid pastry filled with grey sludge, more bone and gristle than meat, that graced the tables of the city’s cheaper ordinaries.
“So.” Ingram leant back on the settle. “Must be six years if it’s a day.”
“Seven,” Mal replied.
Mal nodded. The beer and oysters arrived, and he slid two of the tankards across the table. “Cheers!”
Ingram raised his tankard in salute, and they all drank deeply. Ned sniffed an oyster. It seemed fresh so he downed it in one. Mal often told him that they tasted just like the sea. Not that Ned had ever been further down the Thames estuary than Deptford.
“So what have you been doing with yourself since you were sent down?” Ingram asked Mal.
“I was not sent down, I left.”
Ned glanced from one to the other. O ho, now it comes out. He sipped his beer nonchalantly.
“That’s merely what I was told,” Ingram said.
“What else did you hear?”
“Nothing.” Ingram ran his hand through his thinning hair.
Mal held his gaze.
“All right.” Ingram leant forward, and lowered his voice. “After you left, I heard Charles had run up thousands of pounds in gambling debts and fled the country.”
Thousands of pounds? Ned stared at Mal. Had his family really been that wealthy? He knew they had had money and lost it, but not how much.
“That’s not far from the truth,” Mal said. “Not thousands, but hundreds, certainly. My brother never could tell a dog with real spirit from a mangy cur that had been gingered up for the fight. We had to sell everything to pay off his creditors.”
“All of it? Even Rushdale Hall?”
“God’s Mercy! Heaven must be ringing with your father’s curses. And you?”
“I joined the muster at Ipswich and sailed to the Low Countries.”
“Death or glory, eh?”
“I saw too much of the former,” Mal said, gazing into his tankard. “And precious little of the latter. So I came home.”
Mal hesitated, and glanced at Ned in warning. “I… I don’t have a patron at the moment. I’ve found work here and there, but nothing permanent.”
Ingram shook his head.
“It’s a cock-eyed world when the son of a gentleman can be reduced to little better than a hireling.”
Ned bristled, but Mal put a warning hand on his arm.
“I suppose when you put it like that…” Mal said quietly.
“It wasn’t like this in the old days,” Ingram said. He called for the pot-boy and ordered more beer. “What was I saying?”
“Something about the old days.”
“Oh yes, that was it. Our grandsires used to be the backbone of the country. Who won England’s battles against those damned Frenchies? The knights. Now we sit on our backsides whilst grimy artisans with cannon and musket do our job for us. It’s not right, you know.”
Ned sipped his beer, not meeting Mal’s eye. Probably best not to bring up the stout English yeomen and their longbows, who had triumphed at Agincourt against the finest knights in Europe.
“London is swarming with damned foreigners and sodomites,” Ingram went on. “Soon there won’t be any true Englishmen left, just swarthy mongrels speaking a foul mix of Dutch and Moorish and heaven knows what else.”
When Mal made no reply, Ingram excused himself and wove his way through the tables towards the stairs.
“Who is this jackanapes?” Ned asked, the moment Ingram was out of earshot. “I tell you, Mal, if he wasn’t your friend, I’d call him out right now.”
“We were in college together,” Mal said with a shrug.
“And that excuses his manners?” Ned stood up. “I’ve had enough. If you want me, I’ll be at the Bull.”
* * *
“Where’s your friend?” Ingram asked when he returned.
“The, um, oysters didn’t agree with him,” Mal replied.
Ingram grunted and sat down.
“So,” Mal said with forced cheerfulness, trying to change the subject, “what have you been up to since I last saw you?”
“Getting away from my books as often as possible. Father bought me a fine brace of wheel-locks back from Germany, and there’s some good shooting to be had out on the Hackney Marshes.”
They talked for a while about the pleasures of country living: riding, hawking, and the care of hounds. Thankfully the topic of foreigners did not come up again.
“I’ll be riding out with some fellows tomorrow morning, if you want to come along,” Ingram said, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand.
“Thank you, no. I have business elsewhere.” The last thing he wanted was to tag along with Ingram and his friends, looking like the poor relation in his threadbare doublet and scuffed boots.
“Business? I thought you were out of work?”
“Look here, Catlyn, we were never the best of friends, I’ll grant you that, but one Peterhouse man looks out for another, right?” He leant forward. “If you are looking for work, I have something that might suit you very well.”
“Go on,” Mal said. The job for Leland wouldn’t last more than a few weeks at most, assuming it hadn’t all been a mistake after all.
“After you left Cambridge, I fell in with some fellows from Corpus Christi—“ He laughed mockingly. “Tradesmen’s sons, mostly, but money poured from their purses like Cam water from a drowned drunk. Well, one that I know of has come home to London and is minded to become a gentleman, but he lacks connections. And what can I do, just in from the country?”
“I have few connections of my own,” Mal said. “Not enough to get him into Court, anyway.”
“Oh, that matters not. But the fellow needs to be seen in the company of gentlemen, and perhaps learn the art of the sword?”
“Why does he not hire a fencing-master, if he is so rich?”
Ingram shook his head. “I urged him to, but he would have none of it. ‘Filthy swiving Italians’, he called them, and refused to have them in his house. But a stout Englishman like yourself… Shall I write you a letter of introduction?”
Mal was inclined to refuse; he doubted one of Ingram’s clique would look too kindly on anyone associated with the skraylings. But there were worse options, when all was said and done. Much worse.
“Thank you, that would be most generous.”
“’Tis trifling. What are friends for?” He drained his tankard. “Where shall I send it?”
“Address it to Edmund Faulkner of Deadman’s Place; first house past Maid Lane. I will be lodging there for the summer.”
“You’re living with that greasy cur? God’s bones, Catlyn, no wonder you’re going nowhere. The sooner you remember who you are and where you belong, the better. I’ll have that letter to you by morning. Swear to me you’ll take the job, and get yourself some decent lodgings.”
Mal nodded noncommittally. No work for months, then two jobs come along at once — and both of them an uncomfortable link to his past. The Fates were conspiring against him, of that he was certain. He was tempted to leave the country altogether, but that was the coward’s way out. Besides, with no money and no passport he wasn’t going to get very far. And who would look after Sandy once he was gone?
“All right,” he said at last. “I’ll see this shopkeeper of yours. But I make no promises. I owe no loyalty to you or your friends.”
“Oh I think you do,” Ingram said softly. “You can wash the blood away, Catlyn, but it will always be there. Always.”