If you’ve not read part 1 yet, start here.
Bartholomew Middlestreet could hardly believe it when he heard himself say to Norbert Gannicox,
“I’m really worried about Doc Willoughby, Norbert.”
Norbert raised his eyebrows in surprise. He could hardly believe it either.
“You’re joking! You’re worried about the Doc…?”
Doc Willoughby was not normally the sort of person to elicit enough sympathy to cause worry in others, but Bartholomew was deadly serious.
“He’s acting really strange… almost being pleasant to folks. And his eyes look a bit too shiny.” he said.
It was Norbert’s turn to look concerned.
“That’s never natural. I wonder what’s brought it on?”
Bartholomew dropped his voice, conspiratorially.
“It’s only happened during the last couple of weeks… ever since that old-fashioned galleon turned up.”
As regular readers will recall, a Tudor galleon had recently sailed to the shores of Hopeless, carrying a strange and egregiously foul cargo. Even the islanders, who believed that they had seen just about every variety of the weird and not-so-wonderful, thought that this was just too much to bear. Eventually the ship was mysteriously destroyed and the jelly-like monstrosity that filled its decks had disappeared. Save for a few planks and bits of rigging, there was nothing much for anyone to salvage. Doc Willoughby, however, unbeknownst to his fellow islanders, came upon a piece of wood bearing the ship’s name. With a strange, unwholesome, light in his eyes he dragged the plank back to his home and hid it in a dark corner of his basement. The name of the ship was ‘Mary Willoughby’.
The thing that had given Bartholomew cause for concern was the way in which the Doc had appeared in The Squid and Teapot and greeted him that very morning.
“Bartholomew, old friend, I wonder if I might beg a favour?”
The innkeeper instinctively turned around, wondering of the coincidence of there being someone else in the bar named Bartholomew. As it happened, the inn was otherwise deserted.
“You mean me?” he stammered.
“Why yes,” beamed the Doc cordially, “I just need a bit of help for some… ah… some research I’ve agreed to do for… um… for Miss Calder at the orphanage… it’s a history project that she’s doing with the youngsters.”
The day was becoming increasingly bizarre; Bartholomew, who had known Doc Willoughby for most of his life, knew for certain that the man had never before entertained any intention of helping out at the orphanage.
“There are plenty of reference books in the attics,” said Bartholomew. “You’re welcome to go and take a look.”
“Capital, capital,” said the Doc warmly, shaking a bemused Bartholomew by the hand.
Doc Willoughby needed to find out whatever he could about the ‘Mary Willoughby’. He usually had little interest in ships of any description, but was now being driven by something beyond his understanding and control.
After much perseverance, and four hours of diligent perusal, he found what he was looking for. Having made his way through several hefty tomes that covered various aspects of European nautical history, Doc came across a list of British warships of the Tudor period. With great excitement, he found the reference that he was after.
“The ‘Mary Willoughby’ was a ship of the English Tudor navy, named after Maria Willoughby, a lady-in-waiting and close friend of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The ship was taken by the Scots in 1536 but recaptured by the English ten years later. She was sold in the latter part of the sixteenth century and never heard of afterwards.”
The entry was sparse, to say the least, but it told the Doc a great deal. If Mary Willoughby was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, and had a ship named after her, then she must have been quite somebody. More amazing still, this ship had, hundreds of years later, somehow found its way to Hopeless. Found its way to him! The Doc reeled with the implications of his find. This was fate; a sign, no less. The Willoughby family must have been really important people, royalty almost… and these were surely his ancestors.
Leaving the nautical history books in an untidy pile, Doc started rooting among the other volumes, to see what he could find out about English aristocracy. It did not take long for him to unearth a noble Willoughby line dating back to the thirteenth century. As he read, the Doc swayed and cackled, the unearthly glimmer in his eye becoming brighter by the minute.
“I always knew that I was special,” he said to himself.
Like all good innkeepers, Bartholomew is interested in his customers. In view of this, he felt compelled to find out what the Doc had been up to. It was not nosiness, he reasoned, but a genuine interest that urged him to go up into the attics after the Doc had hurriedly left, still muttering and chuckling to himself about having noble blood. Although Bartholomew didn’t hold out a great deal of hope, he decided – purely out of interest, you understand – to try and work out what the Doc had been looking for.
The task was much easier than he could have hoped. Doc had not bothered to tidy up after himself and the various open books led like a trail of breadcrumbs to the truth. It was not difficult to ascertain that Doc Willoughby was convinced that he was connected to an old and aristocratic English family. Bartholomew’s heart sank. He had seen something similar happen just months before, when Stratford Park believed that he was descended from the famous Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and that episode had not ended well (as related in the tale ‘Burns Night’).
Once back home, Doc Willoughby made his way down to the basement. By the greasy light of a tallow candle he gazed, like one in a trance, at the plank of wood that leaned against the wall. The words ‘Mary Willoughby’ seemed to dance and shimmer before his eyes. Suddenly, a thin, luminous jelly-like substance rolled along its length, then reached out and lay a tendril on the Doc’s temple.
“Did you find it, Willoughby?” said a voice in his head.
“Oh yes,” whispered the Doc.
“Then let us in, and we will make sure you are given your due.”
The Doc hesitated.
“You know that you want to…”
Suddenly a voice, up in the surgery, broke the spell. It was Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Doc, Doc, where are you? There’s been an accident, come quickly. Bartholomew has fallen down the stairs.”
Let us leave Hopeless, for a while, and journey back to the not-so-merry England of 1582. So far the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’ had been only slightly less barbaric than that of the other Tudor monarchs, and there was little sign of things improving. Traitors were still being hung, drawn and quartered, most things seemed to be punishable by death or maiming, torture was commonplace and heretics were being burned at the stake. These were dangerous times, especially for any who dared eschew the rule of law, or the teachings of the protestant church.
Doctor John Dee, scholar, occultist, astrologer and alchemist, knew that even his position as the Queen’s Counsellor could not protect him. A wrong word, an ill-judged look or a spiteful allegation could be enough to send him to the tower, and thence to the gallows, the flames or the block. Standing in the moonlight, upon the gently rocking deck of the ‘Mary Willoughby’, he was well aware that what he was about to do was madness, but the die was cast and there was no going back.
‘Mary Willoughby’, having been constructed about fifty years earlier, was older than most ships still afloat, and had seen more than her share of bloodshed and death. This suited Dee very well, for he, and his friend and fellow occultist, Edward Kelley, had boarded her with the intention of raising the ghosts of those who had died upon her decks.
“Where better to practise necromancy than on an old deserted warship, far from prying eyes?” Kelley had asked him.
Where indeed? Once the idea was born, the rest fell into place fairly easily. Dee had given the lone seaman, who had been charged with guarding the ship as she lay idle in Deptford docks, the handsome sum of two shillings to desert his post for a few hours. This the man did with a mixture of gratitude and fear, for Doctor Dee was infamous and his reputation and position at court was not to be argued with.
Beneath a full moon Dee and Kelley cast a circle of salt and, standing within it, uttered spells from an old grimoire. They invoked demons and angels, speaking their sacred and forbidden names in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. They called upon the dead to rise, to come and do their bidding, but nothing seemed to happen. After a fruitless and somewhat chilly hour, the two looked at each other in despair.
“Well, that was a waste of time and two shillings,” complained Dee bitterly, who was suffering from cramp and in desperate need of relieving himself.
Kelley sighed and drew out a long clay pipe with a tiny bowl. Into this he patted a equally tiny wad of tobacco. He had spotted a brazier burning on the aftcastle, and stepped out of the circle to get a light. Then he stopped in mid-stride.
“God’s wounds, John, what is this muck under my feet?”
Kelley lifted his foot and found, to his dismay, that a long, sticky strand of some glutinous substance was attached to it. Dee examined the goo closely, then shook his head, puzzled.
“I have never seen its like Edward, but behold…”
Tendrils of slime began squirming and climbing all around them, as if they possessed some diabolical life of their own. Confronting the spirits of the dead was one thing, but this gummy, seemingly sentient, abomination was something else entirely. Without more ado, and a few whimpers of terror, the two fought their way, with no little difficulty, to the side of ship, where they hurriedly descended to the small boat that waited below. Rowing frantically, and in their haste to leave, they failed to notice that a mist had started to form around the ‘Mary Willoughby’, through which they might have spotted some faintly human shapes writhing, as if in torment.
Sitting in a quayside tavern a short time later, the pair sat huddled in a corner, drinking ale.
“Marry, John, that was strange,” said Edward Kelley, still trembling.
“Strange, indeed,” agreed John Dee. “I still cannot fathom what that vile jelly might have been.”
A young man, sitting just within earshot, looked up abruptly.
“Vile jelly? That’s a good phrase. I might be able to use that one day,” he said to himself.
Young Will had come down to London expressly to sell the gloves that his father made, back home in the Midlands. He had absolutely no intention of doing that forever, though. He hoped one day to become a moderately successful playwright.
“Well, it’s either going to be, or not to be.” he thought, stoically.
“I can clearly see that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with you,” said Doc Willoughby angrily, a glimmer still in his eyes, but his sunny disposition of earlier having disappeared behind a heavy cloud.
He had hurried to The Squid and Teapot, black medical bag in hand, expecting to find Bartholomew Middlestreet in a mangled mess at the foot of the stairs. Instead the innkeeper was sitting, quite comfortably, at a table in the bar, with Ariadne, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox.
Ariadne left her seat, crossed the room and quietly closed and locked the door.
“No, I’m fine,” agreed Bartholomew. “The truth is, you don’t seem to be yourself these days, and we’re all worried. What’s up Doc?”
To be continued…