Aberdeen, 8 October, 1635
The young woman’s hair lay in perfect waves on her bare shoulders. A carefully-chosen pearl, a gift from her mother, adorned her neck. She wore her best dress, although one not well suited to the weather, but that was of little relevance, and she really did not feel the cold. One or two townsfolk might have seen her hurry along Schoolhill to the Blackfriars’ gate by which he had told her to enter the garden, but none had seemed really to notice her. There was plenty else afoot in the town to take their interest tonight. She knew the way to the meeting place very well, although she had been puzzled as to why he had chosen it. There was little chance of course, particularly at that hour, that they would be disturbed: indeed, he must have chosen it for that very purpose for they were not disturbed, and that was a pity because, by the time – many hours later – that another came along the path to the frozen pond, it was too late to cut her down from where she hung, ice frosting her lashes and her dead lips already blue.
Aberdeen, one week earlier
The ship lay behind him, a silent hulk of black against the greying sky. Darkness would fall and he would go out into the streets, down the alleyways, enter the inns and the alehouses and find those who had something to run from. They would listen, eyes brightening, as others offered them tales of something different, a dream of something better, the adventure of being a man. They would marvel at the possibility of wealth, titles, land in places they had never seen. He, on the other hand, could promise them a nightmare beyond their imagining: brutality, starvation, disease, the corrosion of anything good they might once have been, the certainty of death. But they would not listen to him – they did not look at him. Often, they did not even see him.
Unlike the lieutenant, his senior officer, the recruiting sergeant rarely left the ship unless it were under cover of darkness, and it wanted a little time yet for that. And yet he was drawn, in spite of all he knew to be wise, away from the hidden places of the quayside and up the well-remembered lanes and vennels behind Ship Row and into the heart of the town.
The college roofs rose up ahead of him, behind the houses that fronted the Broadgate. The scholars who had their lodgings in the town were hastening home, showing little sign of being tempted astray to an inn or alehouse and away from their hearth and their landlady’s table – however mean it might be. Gowns were pulled tight, caps held to heads and oaths against the elements uttered. Few remarked upon him. One or two children, late already for their supper, darted across the street and down narrow pends and closes, laughing in strange relief as they disappeared from sight. Women on their own quickened their step. Those in twos or threes cast him swift glances and murmured in low voices to their companions as they hurried on.
He stopped in the shadow of a forestair jutting out into the street. ‘Changed days,’ he thought, ‘that I should stand here unnoticed.’ But the observation was a reassurance to one who sought obscurity. Gradually, the bustle at the college gates faded to nothing, and the doleful ringing of the bell above St Nicholas Kirk told the porter that it was time they were closed against the darkness that had now fallen. Three nights he had waited thus; three nights he had been disappointed. He was on the point of giving the thing up as lost, a lesson from fate, a message from the God from whom he had so long ago parted company, when the billowing form of a solitary man in the gown of a regent of the Marischal College emerged on to the street. The figure called something to someone behind him, and the gates were hastily drawn to against the growing turbulence of the night.
The recruiting sergeant held his breath, scared almost to move. The voice. It was the voice, he knew it, and by a trick of the years it called to something in him that he had thought long dead. At this distance he could discern no grey in the hair, no line on the brow, and as the other crossed the Broadgate and disappeared down the side of the Guest Row, he knew it was the very walk. Even after all these years, there could be no doubt: it was Alexander Seaton.
The stranger pulled his cloak tighter round him and turned back in the direction of the quayside and the ship. It was growing colder, and it had been enough. There was time yet, and he had other business to attend to tonight.
Aberdeen, 1 October 1635
Downie’s Inn was as full as I had seen it in a long while, and worse lit than was its wont, the poor light from cheap tallow candles doing more to mask the dirt ingrained in every bench, every corner, than the landlady’s cleaning rag had ever done. A sudden, noxious warmth hit me, of steam rising from damp clothing mingled with the usual odours of long-spilt ale and burnt mutton. I shouldered my way through a knot of packmen and chandlers to the hatch from which Jessie Downie dispensed only bad ale or sour wine. Just before I reached it, there was a small commotion to my left as four of Peter Williamson’s scholars bolted from a bench in the corner and out of the back door of the inn.
Jessie avoided my eye as she passed a jug of beer out through the hatch. ‘There are none of yours in here tonight, Mr Seaton.’
‘Are there not,’ said Peter, having spotted Seoras MacKay, a Highland boy from my senior class. ‘You’ve been told before you’re not to serve them.’ He jerked a thumb in the direction of the bench where Jessie’s daughter was giggling and making only a half-hearted resistance to MacKay’s advances. He was very drunk. Of his habitual and more generally sober companion, Hugh Gunn, there was no sign.
‘Ach, you, Peter Williamson. You were never out of this place yourself not so many years past. It did you no harm,’ Jessie responded.
‘I would hardly say that, but I was never here when the recruiting ships were at anchor in the harbour. Have they been in here tonight?’
She pursed her mouth and nodded very briefly towards a darkened neuk in the shadow of the stairs. ‘Over there. And watch yourselves with that fellow; he’s a charmer, but he has a look about him I do not like.’
‘His money’s good, though, eh, Jessie?’
‘A damned sight better than yours,’ she muttered, before shouting at her daughter to see to her work or find it out on the street instead.
I had almost reached Seoras MacKay, slumped now on his bench, when he finally noticed me. I saw a look spread over his face that I had seen before and that did not bode well for our encounter. He roused himself, holding his beaker up in the air. ‘The good Irishman! Bring us whisky, Jessie, that Mr Seaton and I might toast our ancestors together!’
‘You’ll have no more to drink tonight, Seoras.’
‘Ach, Mr Seaton, come now, there are some stories I would tell you – and I’ve heard it’s not so long ago you liked a dram yourself.’
Peter Williamson was there before me. ‘On your feet, MacKay. You’ll be in front of the principal tomorrow morning and see what stories he has for you.’
Seoras MacKay stood up, stumbling slightly and righting himself on the window ledge as he did so. ‘Do you speak to the heir of MacKay like that, Williamson? You who owe your allegiance to my father?’
It was not the first time that Seoras in his drink had thrown his father’s chieftainship over the Williamsons in Peter’s face; the dark-eyed charm of the Highlander was lost on my young colleague, and I thought I would have to hold him back as his fists clenched and his jaw twitched in real anger.
‘I’ve never set foot in your midge-ridden boglands, MacKay, and I owe your father nothing. Now find Hugh Gunn and get back to the college before I have you thrown another night in the tollbooth.’
The student surveyed Peter Williamson with contempt, before slumping against the wall. ‘I believe you’ll find Uisdean over there,’ he said, using Hugh’s Gaelic name.
I could see nothing at first, through the fug of steam and tobacco made worse by the sooty smoke from the poorly swept chimney. ‘It’s a wonder this place has not gone up in flames,’ I muttered as we pushed through protesting bodies in the direction Seoras MacKay had indicated. The dregs of the town were here. I noticed as we passed that the bench vacated by Peter’s students had been taken by a large, genial-looking man and his smaller, less friendly-seeming companion. I caught some words I thought to be French between them. If I had known the tongue better I would have told them of places in the town where a stranger might find better entertainment than this.
And then I saw Hugh Gunn. He was in earnest conversation with someone out of my vision across the table, and was sitting with his back to us. He had a quill pen in his hand and appeared to be preparing to sign the paper in front of him. The man opposite him leaned towards him a little as if in encouragement, and in doing so moved into the light. I caught his features just a moment before he registered mine. He was slim, and appeared to be of good height. His hair reached below his shoulders in long ebony rings that glinted when caught in the candlelight. He wore no beard or moustache, and a fine silver scar travelled across his lip to the edge of his left cheek. When his grey eyes met mine I instantly understood Jessie Cameron’s apprehension. They took only a moment to form themselves into a smile and he rose and offered me a gauntleted hand.
‘Mr Alexander Seaton, if I am not mistaken? I had hoped we might meet before now.’
I did not take his hand. ‘You have the advantage of me.’
Letting his hand drop, he inclined his head very slightly, his eyes still set on me.
‘Lieutenant William Ormiston of the Scots Brigade in the service of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Christina of Sweden.’
‘Recruiting for the wars,’ I said coldly.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘I hold a licence from the Privy Council, sanctioned by the king himself. I do nothing illegal here.’
‘The boys who signed up with you from the colleges of Edinburgh and St Andrews were not free to do so – they were matriculated students in those places. The parents of the students of Marischal College have placed them in our care. You can have no legitimate business here.’ I plucked the quill pen out of Hugh Gunn’s hand and scored a line through the contract in front of him.
‘Get back to the college, Hugh, and take Seoras MacKay with you – I doubt if he is fit to find his way anywhere by himself tonight. You will present yourselves to the principal in the morning, and if there is any repeat of this incident you’ll scarcely have time to pack your bag before he sends you back up to Strathnaver with nothing more than a flea in your ear and a report of your disgrace to take back to Seoras’s father.’
The boy stood to face me, sullen, his eyes level with my own. ‘Seoras’s father will have me in the wars soon enough anyway, cleaning his son’s boots and paying off his whores. I’ll sign with the lieutenant here and make my own way. You don’t need Latin to wield a pike or raise a musket.’ He bent to put his name to the spoilt paper, but to my surprise, Ormiston stayed his hand.
‘And yet, from the classical authors there is much to be learned about the commanding of armies and the leading of men,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you should wait a year or two after all – the wars will still be there, I can assure you.’
The boy stared at him a moment in almost furious disbelief, then uttered an oath in Gaelic as he pushed past me. I was tempted to return the compliment. He strode across the room in impotent fury to take his friend roughly by the arm that was not occupied by the serving girl, whom Seoras had accosted again as she was setting bowls of a rancid-looking stew down before the two Frenchmen. ‘Come on, before you take a dose of the pox.’
Being appealed to by his Gaelic name had no effect on the more sober of the two Highlanders, and, taller and more strongly built, he had the other up on his feet with another determined haul. ‘Never mind “Uisdean”. Get up that road, and if you vomit this time I’ll leave you where you lie.’
As he was pulled out of the door, Seoras MacKay turned to throw one more jibe at Peter Williamson. ‘You see, Mister Williamson, the Gunns know their place. There is much you could learn from your scholars.’ Another threat from Hugh and he was hauled beyond the doorway and into the night.
Peter, now white with rage, said, ‘If I find Seoras MacKay in a place like this again I will sign him up for the Swede myself. There is little wrong with him that a bullet from a Spaniard’s musket would not put right.’
The soldiers at Ormiston’s back moved slightly towards us. This was not the place for that kind of talk. I put a hand on my young colleague’s arm.
‘That’s us finished for tonight, Peter. Get away to your own bed now and get some rest, and for the goodness’ sake, dry yourself off.’ I reached in my pouch and handed him a few pennies. ‘Here, give that to the porter and he’ll bring you something for your fire – I cannot spend another day listening to those squelching boots.’
Peter took a moment to regain his control, managing a ‘thank you’ below his breath. He nodded towards the recruiting officer and his men, and asked me, ‘Will you be all right?’
I looked at Ormiston as I spoke. ‘I doubt I have anything to fear from a law-abiding subject of the king,’ I said.
‘Nothing at all,’ said the lieutenant. ‘I can assure you.’
Peter was unconvinced. ‘Well, mind you don’t sign yourself up – I’m not taking that class of yours as well.’
After he had gone, Ormiston signalled to the two men who lurked about the table, clearly not officers, and they took themselves to the serving hatch where Jessie had tankards and a jug of ale waiting for them. They recommenced their trawl of the inn.
‘So this is your method?’ I said. ‘You get the men so drunk they don’t know what they’re putting their mark to until it’s too late?’
He motioned for me to sit down. ‘A drunk is of no use to me. I need men of discipline, not a soak who will dance after the last man to set a jug of beer in front of him.’
I laughed. ‘Then I have to tell you, your intelligence has failed you tonight. This is the lowest drinking hole in Aberdeen. You will not find men here whose greatest wish is to defend their distressed brethren overseas against the Papist Habsburgs. There are no men here who dream of dying for the Queen of Bohemia.’ I declined the glass of wine he had pushed towards me. He shrugged and put it to the side.
‘I have those men a-plenty. Younger sons of younger sons, bred as gentlemen, bred to adventure, but scarcely a penny or a scrap of land to their name. They serve foreign kings for their standing and their dignity, and to make their name and their fortune. Their faith, their loyalty to the House of Stuart, have been bred into them since their first breath. Those men, and I am one of them, Mr Seaton, are the finest officers in all of Sweden’s armies.’
‘You will not find them in places like this.’
‘No, but I have come here for something else.’ He pointed to a bench to the left of us, where one of his men was in earnest and, it seemed, sympathetic conversation with a gloomy-looking cooper. ‘I need footsoldiers as well as officers. You see that cooper there? He has been twice before the kirk session over a promise to marry his master’s daughter. The girl is no great enticement, it would seem, and her father and the kirk are running out of humour with his delaying. But the session will allow him out of his promise if he will sign with me to fight the Papists.’
‘I see.’ I knew what he said to be true.
‘And you see that one there?’
‘The man who scratches at his arm?’
‘Scabs, left by manacles,’ said Ormiston. ‘He has been out of the tollbooth three days – a minor offence, but he has lost his employment and the roof over his head. What should he do? Throw himself, able-bodied as he is, upon the charity of the good burgesses of this town? You know how that would end. They will both be aboard my ship by the end of the week.’ He refilled his own glass. ‘I offer a life to those who would run from what they have, or who have nothing at all.’
‘Hugh Gunn is only seventeen years old; his life is hardly behind him.’
‘That is the student we both so offended?’
‘You are right, I had not expected to find one like him in here. He is in the other category, a younger son of a younger son, beholden to the good graces of his chieftain. That’s why I wanted him rather than his drink-sodden, whore-mongering friend. He will make a fine soldier, a good officer, one day.’
I suspected he would be proved right, if the boy could learn to master his temper better. ‘And yet you let him go.’
He sat back and smiled and I realised this was what he had been waiting for. ‘I did it as a favour to you, Mr Seaton.’
‘You don’t even know me.’
He watched me a long moment. ‘Do not be so certain about what I know.’ Some movement at the top of the stair seemed to catch his eye. I looked up but could see nothing in the gloom. The lieutenant shifted slightly in his seat.
‘My past is old news in this burgh, lieutenant,’ I told him. ‘You’ll find there is little capital to be made of it now.’
‘Oh, I very much doubt that, Mr Seaton, but it is late already and I daresay you and I will meet again, and so further our acquaintance. For the meantime, I hope you will rest easy on the matter of Hugh Gunn – I will not be enticing him aboard my ship.’
If he expected my thanks, he was disappointed. I gave him no answer at all, and was glad to get out of the place whose foul air was filling up my throat. The Frenchmen, I noticed, had already abandoned their bowls of inedible stew, and left the place before me.
The inn was on the edges of town, beyond Blackfriars where it met the Woolmanhill. It was a fitting night-time haunt for vagrants, criminals, those who did not want to be seen or found. My shortest route home would take me past the back of the fleshers’ yard, and I knew that the gutters there would be overflowing after the torrents of recent days. I had no wish to bring the smell of the charnel house with me to where my family slept, so I elected to take a longer route, one that would bring me past the near end of the loch and up by the old public garden that backed on to George Jamesone’s house.
George had fulminated often against the dilapidation of the walls that allowed all sorts of the burgh’s displaced humanity to live out their debauches there in the night within hearing, and sometimes sight, of the back windows of his own fine residence. The garden where once plays profane and godly, music and dancing, trysts of love and childhood games had had their moments was now abandoned to tangles of thorns, feral creatures, and those who could find their pleasures in no lawful place. It was not somewhere any God-fearing person would wish to find themselves alone under cover of darkness. A happy Eden once, turned by the fears and prohibition of our Calvinist kirk into a den of ungovernable vice and iniquity.
I had just passed the rusted gate that led from the overgrown gardens out on to the long vennel to Schoolhill when the sounds of a disturbance came to my ears. It was evidently coming from somewhere in the gardens – there were muffled shouts and cries, the sound of blows being exchanged. My first thought was of Hugh Gunn and Seoras MacKay – the place was a favoured short cut for scholars making their way back to the college in the hope of not being seen. I doubted that Peter Williamson, even in his haste to get to the warmth of his bed, would have taken the chance of cutting through here alone. Nevertheless, unsheathing my knife, I doubled back and entered the garden.
I could have wished for a light for the moon was clouded over, and I had to trust to my senses and my memory. Rather than go right out to the middle of the gardens, I judged it safer to keep to the walls surrounding it until I came upon the old middle path that led to what had once been a stage. Formerly used by mummers and actors in the Mystery plays, the amphitheatre was now the favoured haunt of the sturdy beggars and masterless men who roamed this place by night. I strained to listen for noises that would give me better direction, but the sounds of the scuffle were becoming less frequent, and after two long, low cries they ceased completely. I should have turned for home then, but I was already regretting allowing Hugh to take Seoras back to the college alone – the boy in the state he had been in would be handful enough for two men, let alone one. And so I pressed on. The further into the garden I went, the deeper the darkness became, to the point that I knew to continue would be folly. I began to turn, thinking somehow to retrace my steps, when my foot struck the unseen root of a tree and I found myself tilting headlong towards the ground. I put out a hand to stop myself and felt my flesh tear on a low branch of hawthorn. Before I could wrestle my way out of it, a figure had launched itself at me from above and pressed me to the ground. I attempted to raise my head as surprisingly strong hands bound my wrists behind my back. My head was instantly thrust back towards the ground and I tasted dirt, then blood, from my own lower lip. My assailant told me in no uncertain terms that another such attempt would cost me an ear. For all the shock and discomfort of the moment, my overriding sensation was of incomprehension, for the voice was one I knew very well.
Excerpted from The Devil’s Recruit by S. G. MacLean. Copyright © 2013 by S. G. MacLean.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
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