A Death Along the River Fleet by Susanna Calkins is the 4th book in the Lucy Campion Mystery series (Available April 12, 2016).
Lucy Campion, a ladies’ maid turned printer’s apprentice in 17th-century London, is crossing Holborn Bridge over the murky waters of the River Fleet one morning when, out of the mist, she sees a specter moving toward her. Frightened at first, Lucy soon realizes the otherworldly figure is in fact a young woman, clearly distraught and clad only in a blood-spattered white nightdress. Barely able to speak, the woman has no memory of who she is or what’s happened to her. The townspeople believe she’s possessed. But Lucy is concerned for the woman’s well-being and takes her to see a physician. When, shockingly, the woman is identified as the daughter of a nobleman, Lucy is asked to temporarily give up her bookselling duties to discreetly serve as the woman’s companion while she remains under the physician’s care.
As the woman slowly recovers, she begins―with Lucy’s help―to reconstruct the terrible events that led her to Holborn Bridge that morning. But when it becomes clear the woman’s safety might still be at risk, Lucy becomes unwillingly privy to a plot with far-reaching social implications, and she’ll have to decide just how far she’s willing to go to protect the young woman in her care.
Lucy Campion slipped toward the vast wasteland where London’s busy markets had once bustled. Since the Great Fire some seven months before, the region was silent, lifeless—the ash-covered rubble and charred tree stumps were a grim reminder of all the city had lost. The mumpers and beggars who had sought refuge in the area had been removed before the winter had come, and the burnt ruins had been steadily cleared away by soldiers and conscripted Londoners.
As the sleet-filled wind picked up a bit, Lucy shivered. The winter that had just passed was the coldest anyone could remember—even the Thames had frozen over in January—and there were many times throughout that winter when Lucy had wondered if she would ever be truly warm again. Spring had not come easily to this region; there were no trees, and the chill morning air was strangely silent from the lack of birds trilling. Far off in the distance she caught the crunching sound of a cart making an early delivery somewhere. It brought to mind the strange journey by cart that she herself had made, just two weeks before, on a wild search to locate a dear friend who was caught in the grip of a murderer.
Without thinking, Lucy rubbed her knee, which had been hurt most dreadfully during the encounter, and still pained her from time to time. Master Aubrey, the printer who had taken her on as an apprentice after the Fire, had bid her make several deliveries this early morning. Best get used to walking again, Lucy, he had told her in his usual gruff way. I have no place for you in my shop otherwise. So she was up before dawn to make her deliveries, even before the other printer’s devil, Lach, had got up to piss in his pot. Several books had come for Mr. Oldham, a private tutor who lived just beyond the northwestern part of the burnt expanse. Indeed, his home had been spared, having been just beyond the Fire’s reach.
Unlike most of the books they sold, which were made of a flimsy paper, these three books were hefty, clad in leather, and—to Lucy’s disappointment—written entirely in Latin. Although she had learned to read and write when serving in the household of Master Hargrave, a London magistrate, she had never learned a foreign tongue, let alone a language of the ancients.
As she neared Holborn Bridge, the wind shifted and the nauseating smell of the old Fleet River assaulted her. Master Hargrave once had told her that, long ago, the river had flowed easily, allowing barges and ships to move without difficulty through its winding course. Such a thing was hard to believe; it was now more ditch and drainage than a true river, full of excrement and animal parts from the Smithfield markets, decaying in ill-flowing streams. The houses and sheds that had long lined the river—an open sewer truly—had been pulled down and cleared to keep the Fire from spreading farther west. Just beyond the bridge, civilization could be viewed again—lanes and paths leading north and west, with church steeples and markets just beyond.
Now holding her nose with her free hand, Lucy mounted the three steps on the ancient stone bridge, her eyes averted from the muck and squalor that lay beneath. She peered across the bridge, trying to see through the gray mist that swirled above the rubble. Even in the early dawn light, it was hard to see much more than shadows in the mounds of debris.
As she reached the end of the bridge, for a moment the fog parted, and she froze.
There, looking unearthly and strange, a specter of a woman in white was moving toward her. Clad in a long white gown, her hands pressed to her head, the specter was approaching with a strange and jerking gait. Dark hair streamed wildly past her waist, and her face was as pale as her gown.
Her heart pounding, Lucy stepped back. A ghost? She had never seen a ghost, but tales and stories abounded of the mischief and evil that some might bring upon earthly inhabitants.
She looked about. Was she near a crossroads? She’d heard tell how the Ghost of Dorchester had gotten confused at the crossing of two roads, not knowing which direction to turn, and had simply disappeared forever. But the rubble from the Fire made it impossible to discern the original roads. Perhaps if she moved back across the bridge?
The apparition continued to advance. Lucy pressed against the stone wall of the bridge, hoping that it would pass her by. A ghost could not harm her, surely that was true.
Then, as her heart beat even faster and she felt a cold chill snake along her neck, the apparition sneezed.
An everyday, common sneeze, nothing otherworldly about it. The sneeze of a human.
Relieved, Lucy chuckled, even as she admonished herself. Such a fool you are, Lucy. She is of flesh and bone, same as you.
Still, though not a specter, there was something very odd about this woman. Clad only in a torn white shift, the woman seemed oblivious to her bare feet and wild hair, which Lucy could see was full of burrs and ashes. Her hands, still pressed to the side of her head, were filthy, as if she had been digging in mud. Her eyes, fearsome and dark, were unfocused, as if she were looking into another world.
Feeling goose bumps rise all over her body, Lucy took another step back, and then another. Since her eyes were fixed on the woman, she did not realize she was stepping on a patch of unstable rocks, which caused her to slip.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
But the damage was done. At her voice, the woman whipped her head toward Lucy and stared directly at her. “Has the devil come?” she whispered to Lucy in a harsh, strained voice, before looking frantically behind her. “Did he follow me?”
“Em-m—” Lucy gulped, peering out into the sprawling wasteland that lay before her, half expecting to see a horned figure in black striding forward on two cloven hoofs, pitchfork in hand, his pointed tail waving behind him. Such was the image of the devil she would set in the penny pieces back at Master Aubrey’s.
But there was no dark figure. Indeed, no movement at all could be discerned on the barren landscape. “I see no one,” Lucy whispered.
“You lie!” the woman hissed. Then, without warning, she grabbed Lucy’s arm. “Are you in consort with him?”
“Let me be!” Lucy cried. She shook her arm free with a violent move, causing the woman to fall heavily to the ground, far harder than she expected.
Lucy turned to run back across the bridge, but before she had taken two steps a bright flash of pain in her knee stopped her from fleeing. Grimacing, she put her hand on the edge of the bridge, still trying to move away as fast as she could.
From behind her, Lucy heard the woman start to weep, loud desperate cries. “Please, miss! Please!” the woman called out to her. “Please do not leave me.”
Against her instincts, Lucy turned back around to face the woman. She was still crouched on the ground where she had been pushed.
It was then that Lucy noticed something new. What she had assumed to be mud on the woman’s shift and hands was, in truth, the deep reddish-brown stain of blood.
After a cautious look around, Lucy knelt down a few steps away, still keeping a little distance between them. She had heard of thieves and highwaymen pretending to be ill so they could catch a victim unawares. Yet this woman looked genuinely distressed. “Miss, please,” Lucy said. “What is wrong? Are you injured? Did someone hurt you?”
Without speaking again, the woman began to sway back and forth, murmuring to herself, a great dullness to her expression. For a moment, Lucy was reminded of another dull-witted person of her acquaintance—a gentle soul named Avery who had been injured by an exploding gun in Cromwell’s wars.
Edging closer, Lucy looked again at the woman’s bloody hands. She had small cuts all over them, but the blood was no longer flowing. Her wrists were covered with purple and yellow bruises. Lucy sighed, looking at the woman’s blue lips and ashen face. She knew she could not in good conscience leave her on her own. What injuries she had sustained surely would only be worsened by lying on the hard frozen ground.
Lucy picked up her book-filled sack. “Come with me. I will take you to someone who can help you.”
The woman made no move to stand. Lucy took off her own warm cloak and flung it around the woman’s frail shoulders. She extended a hand, half expecting her to rebuff the gesture. To her surprise, the woman put her hand in Lucy’s own, allowing Lucy to pull her to a standing position, like a docile child with her mother.
“The physician Larimer is a good man. He will help you,” Lucy murmured to the woman, more to assure herself than the other. To be honest, she did not know what Dr. Larimer would think. Good man or not, he might not appreciate being asked to attend to a woman who had no coins to cover the cost of his service. But Lucy could not just abandon her. She felt that in her bones.
The wind picked up as they walked, the woman clinging tightly to her arm. Shivering, Lucy berated herself for her folly. Why had she given the woman her cloak? Indeed, why was she helping this odd woman at all? This was the kind of impetuous act that always got her into trouble. No matter now, Lucy thought. The gesture has been made. I will have done my duty when I leave her with the physician.
As they passed through the edge of Holborn Market a few moments later, she could see the merchants eying them suspiciously. No wonder. The woman looked quite frightful indeed, with her wild hair and stricken features. Lucy feared she looked little more presentable herself, without a cloak to keep her tidy.
The woman began to move more sluggishly, now fully clinging to Lucy as if she were unable to move without the support of her strong young arm. “They are all staring at me,” she whispered. “They think I have done something dreadful.”
“No, no,” Lucy murmured. “Let us keep moving. The air is too cold, and we are not dressed for such a chill.” She began to pull the woman more forcefully. “Come on, now. We should not dally.”
But the woman stood stock-still and began to mutter to herself.
“What is it? What are you saying?” Lucy asked, putting her ear closer to the woman’s mouth. “I cannot understand you.”
Then, unexpectedly, the woman began to jerk her head to one side, her dark eyes once again taking on that fearful unseeing look.
“M-miss?” Lucy said, taking a step back. “I fear something is wrong.”
A few steps away, a boy tugged on the sleeve of his mother’s brown cloak. “Ma, look at that woman there!” he said loudly. “What is wrong with her?”
His mother turned away from the stall of vegetables. “Dunno, Tim,” she said to her son, yanking him away. “Nothing good comes from crossing paths with them sort.”
But Tim continued to stare at the woman. “Got a wild look to her, don’t she?”
Lucy glared at the boy. Unfortunately, her response drew an equally baleful look from his mother. “Devil has her!” his mother hissed, looking at the vegetable-seller, who nodded in agreement.
“Witch’s eyes, she has!” the vegetable-seller said loudly, planting her hands on her plump hips. “Off with you now! We’re godly folk in this market. There is no business for the devil here.”
“No, no!” Lucy cried out, putting up her hands. “She is injured, she needs help! She is not accursed! Please, I am bringing her to a physician! The good Dr. Larimer. He lives near here! Pray, let us pass!”
She pulled at the woman, who still stood as if her feet had frozen to the ground. “Miss,” she whispered urgently. “We must leave here.”
Other people who had been milling about at the small market began to gather around them as well. “Devil got her!” they began to call and jeer. “Cast her from the market!”
“No, please!” Lucy pleaded, above the growing din. “We are just passing through the market. A stone’s throw away, I tell you. That is where we are going.”
Suddenly a potato glanced off Lucy’s cheek, and she turned angrily to face her assailant.
“There is your stone’s throw!” The vegetable-seller cackled. “Take that cursed woman away from my goods, lest she draw down the hex!”
Although Lucy desperately regretted having taken charge of the pitiful woman, there was no way she could leave her to this frenzied crowd. “Come with me,” Lucy said, putting her arm around the woman, trying to steer them both away from the market and away from the cruel chants and jeers of the crowd.
At that moment, the woman, who had not moved for the last two minutes, suddenly seemed to leap back into her senses. “What is going on? Where am I?”
She stared in fear at the taunting faces around her, digging her nails hard into Lucy’s uncloaked arm. It was all Lucy could do to keep from crying out herself. Lucy did not want to rile the crowd any more. She pulled the cloak up around the woman’s head, hiding her wild hair again. “Please, miss,” she said again, more urgently. “We must keep moving.”
The woman began to sob quietly but allowed herself to be led. Her change to a more piteous creature did not pass unmarked, and Lucy could feel the mood of the Londoners around her changing as they continued through the market. Thankfully, the crowd did not follow them, and they soon found themselves away from the busy stalls, in an old abandoned cow pasture.
Lucy let go of the woman and looked at her. There was a time when she might have feared the woman as one beset by the devil. Her years living in the magistrate’s household, though, had taught her to be suspicious of those who spoke too easily of witchcraft and magical doings. Still, had she not seen, with her own eyes, the movement of God working among those who called themselves Quakers? So who was to say that the devil could not move those weak of heart and faith? She shook her head.
At the edge of the dusty road, Lucy spied a well. Fortunately, when she pulled up the bucket, the water was not frozen and seemed clean enough, aside from a few dead bugs floating around. Using the little tin cup that she always carried in her pack, Lucy scooped out some water and bid the woman to drink.
Her hand now clutching the side of the well for support, the woman drank a bit, sputtering at the taste. Ignoring the shouts still ringing in her ears, and the still-rapid beating of her heart, Lucy regarded the woman critically. Between her wild unkempt hair, the bloodstains on her clothes, and the dirt and blood on her hands, they would likely be barred entrance to the physician’s home on sight. No, the woman’s wild beggarly state required attention.
Dabbing her handkerchief into the pail, Lucy washed the woman’s hands and face, scrubbing away some of the dried blood, before drying them with her own cloak. Then, reaching under her white cap, Lucy carefully untied a ribbon from her hair. Before the woman could resist, Lucy created a quick knot so that it lay at the nape of her neck, securing it with the ribbon. Though her hair was still untidy, the woman looked a shade more respectable.
“He will see us now,” Lucy murmured to herself.
A few minutes later, she tiptoed to the tradesman’s entrance at the back of the physician’s house.
“What is this place?” the woman asked. “Where have you brought me?”
“Dr. Larimer’s,” Lucy said. “Now, hush.”
When Dr. Larimer’s housekeeper swung open the door, she took in their bedraggled appearance and immediately began to close the door. “Off with you,” she said. “The doctor don’t do charity.”
“Please,” Lucy said, sticking her foot in the door so that it would not close. “I have a delivery for Dr. Larimer. From Master Aubrey, the printer.” Lucy crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping that the small lie would pass unnoticed. “My master did tell me to get the payment before I left.”
“What about her?” the servant asked, flicking a finger toward the woman. “She has a sickly look to her.”
“I do not know her,” Lucy said. “Truth be told, I found her nearby. There is something amiss with her. I do think she requires a physician. I thought since I was coming to see Dr. Larimer anyway—” She broke off, hating to lie. She spoke more quickly. “Please tell your master, I beg you. I cannot in good conscience leave her on the streets. My name is Lucy Campion. I sell books for Master Aubrey, and was employed with Master Hargrave before that. He knows me.” She pushed against the door a bit more firmly. “And I think you know me, too.”
Something about Lucy must have stirred the housekeeper, for she opened the door and allowed them entrance. “Come with me,” she said. “Do not let her touch anything, though. I do not want her muck all over my clean floors.”
Lucy had started to step in when she realized that the woman was hanging back, a fearful look on her face. “’Tis all right,” Lucy said taking the woman’s hand again. As they entered, Lucy saw a young girl about seventeen years of age, wearing a servant’s cap and apron, peek out at them, taking in their appearance with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
The woman seized Lucy’s hand then, so tightly it hurt. Together they followed the servant to a room near the front of the house. “Wait here,” the housekeeper said tersely. “Both of you. I will fetch Dr. Larimer.”
Copyright © 2016 Susanna Calkins.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Susanna Calkins became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.A Death Along the River Fleet is her fourth novel.