This week’s blog envisages a different showdown between John Eagle and his adversary from book 1, Alan Calvert. The location is Bogle’s Bog, an area of treacherous moorland near the radical’s home at Gravehunger Lodge. In this version of the story the bog has already claimed the life of Calvert’s spouse (and Eagle’s illicit lover), Phoebe. The young attorney goes in search of Calvert, hoping to screw his courage (Dutch) to the sticking-place, the bog in itself being exactly that – a sticking place.
Needing no reminder of my tortured state, I repaired to the tavern for a pot of ale. My choice, perversely, was the Old King’s Arms, whose landlord languished in gaol along with the rest of Calvert’s gang. Only Calvert himself remained at large – no thanks to me, these people were thinking. Though nothing was said, I was made to feel uncomfortable. Too conscious of their betters to insult me, the men yielded space and the landlord gave me what I asked. I was a falcon among pigeons, however; they wouldn’t be themselves till I’d flown. They spoke in whispers, the only other noise the crackling of the fire. But if they thought they could force me out they were mistaken: I wouldn’t leave till I’d had my fill.
Seated by the fire, I drank one quart and then another, ordering next a bottle of rum. Near on three I left with the bottle in my coat pocket. Unmistakably drunk I staggered up the main street, peering through windows with a vacant stare. The children pointed me out to their mothers. One small child, seeing me stumble, poked me with a toy windmill. It disturbed the ribbon in my hair and that’s where it stayed, tangled and stuck.
‘Leave him alone, he’s sick,’ said the mother as she pulled the boy away.
‘Yes I’m sick!’ I yelled, struggling to my feet with the bottle in my hand. ‘Oh so very sick.’ I knew not where I was headed, or nowhere I cared to own. I stumbled past the cottages and workshops, drinking and singing till I came to the beck. Here, overcome by thirst, I lay down on my belly and drank, scooping up the water to douse my face. I didn’t stay long: I was frightened by my reflection, a shimmering horror that jerked me upright. I pressed on, my destination no longer in doubt – never in doubt at all, I was forced to concede at last.
Bogles Bog on a spring day seemed tranquil enough, the treacherous ground hidden by grasses and reeds. But a patch here and there of dark impenetrable mud showed the folly of thinking it a friendly place. A narrow track perilously close to the eastern edge was the only passage for man or beast. I surveyed the length of this winding path – it ran for over a mile –and wondered where it was she had drowned. There were no clues until I came upon a stretch scored by wheels just a mile from Gravehunger Lodge. This, I convinced myself, was the spot. Down there, below the viscous mass, she lay, though at what depth I didn’t know. Tom said the bog was bottomless, repeating the rashness of ignorant country folk. It was enough to know that it was deep, as unlikely to yield its secrets as the deepest sea.
I tried to compose myself, shake off the madness of the ale and the rum. A drunken man may be honest with himself, but he’ll rarely be pleased with what he hears. Was my grief genuine or just affectation? Though I may not have loved Phoebe, there was no gainsaying our intimacy. Take the passion away, though, and little remained – nought but the image of a beautiful woman of merciless powers – nothing to feel bereft of. It was a pity she was dead, but what to me had she been? Someone I had known; a mere acquaintance. I was ready to leave, my penance done, when I felt a presence behind me. It was Calvert himself only feet away, pistol in hand. He was roughly clad and dirty, his beard grown long in a ragged mass. His eyes were inflamed, and a gash scarred his cheek-bone. When he drew closer I saw that he limped. His boot was ripped at the ankle; there was blood there partly congealed, a fresh supply oozing slowly.
‘Well, well, what have we here?’ The effort of speaking had pained him; his free hand reached instinctively for his side. He was wounded there too, and the redness shone dully. ‘Finally got the law on to me, didn’t you?’ he wheezed. ‘Well I’m not done yet.’ He pointed accusingly, blood dripping from his fingers. ‘There’s time to do you …’ – the pain silenced him again – ‘…I’d like to kill you with my bare hands, but you can see how things are.’ No sword this time, but his thumb moved on the hammer of his pistol; I heard the protracted click. Sober now, and doubly fearful, I felt the piss cold against my thighs. He saw my weakness, and the effort of laughing angered him more. ‘A cur like you doesn’t deserve to die quick.’
‘You mean to kill me slowly, like Little Willie?’ Hopeless as it seemed, I was trying to stall him.
‘He got what he deserved.’
‘And did Sir Henry get what he deserved?’ I asked, wanting the truth even at the end.
‘He had a long nose, just like you,’ said Calvert, steadying his piece. But his eyes, already glazed, had rolled and shown the whites. The lids too had started to flutter, till his mind found focus again. As if from fog into clearer air, he appeared to see me for the first time. ‘What are you doing here? – I mean here,’ he asked confused. He crouched on one knee, his face quarried by pain. ‘For pity’s sake!’ he yelled at the sky, ‘why did you take her from me?’
‘Take who?’ I asked, grateful for another second of life, curious all the same as to what he was alluding – could it really be that he knew she was down there?
‘Who? – he asks me who?’ he replied, seeming to debate with himself. His eye-lids were fluttering again; the pistol grew heavier in his hand. Seizing my chance I edged away, but the crack of a stick roused him. ‘Oh no you don’t!’ I’d landed on my back, pinned there by his body weight. ‘No more time,’ he said, prizing my lips open with the barrel of his gun. My control had failed me worse; I felt an alien weight in my breeches. Calvert smelled it and laughed bloody-mouthed. ‘Your sort always shit themselves,’ he said, and spat me a faceful of his blood. ‘You thought to lay me low – you –little you – don’t you know that I’ve manipulated you all along – led you every step of the way?’
‘The witch, the spider – all the rest of it – so it was you – how?’
He never answered, and the look on his face was all pain and confusion. Was he to blame or not? – I needed to know. I felt frustrated at the point of death. And it was death surely, I verily believed it was so. I saw myself post mortem, brains splashed across the heather, no face left to speak of. As for my body, ironically, it was likely to end up in the bog.
His finger moved on the trigger. This was it, and the resignation I felt bred a moment of clarity that saved my life. Trapped behind my head all the while was the child’s windmill that had chanced to work loose. Calmly and swiftly I gripped the sails, and, with a single deft movement, drew out the makeshift dagger and drove it upwards into Calvert’s eye. Like Cyclops himself the murderer roared in agony, his hand grabbing blindly till it closed round the stick. He held it there, yelling thunder, perhaps as Harold had done on the field of Hastings. And all the while his good eye searched out mine with wounded curiosity, seeking an answer, and just a little compassion. His other wounds conspired now, along with the blood loss, to upset his balance. I rose and pushed him straight into the bog. It was only when the mire had taken him under, leaving the mud sucking and popping on the intumescent surface, that I realised he may not have been dead.
I was trembling with the enormity of it all. Though no one deserved death more, it was no small thing to have witnessed his end, to have struggled together so violently, so intimately that I smelt and tasted his blood – blood that was as much his living being as I’d thought his sperm that day. And I remembered what else I’d thought, how the merging of our juices, the forging of a manly bond hinted at a single flesh: in another life we would have been so, would have been friends, maybe even brothers. Fanciful perhaps, but I thought so again.
Till practical things won through. All other traces of him – his boot, which had come off in the struggle, his pistol, which my mouth could taste still – must follow him into the bog; follow him to the bottom where he – not I – would rest beside Phoebe. Soon his disappearance would be legendary, the legend’s fires fanned by news that he’d escaped the militia’s clutches even though he carried its wounds. The wounds had healed; they hadn’t been fatal. Such men could never be killed for they were never mortal to begin with. Unlike his associates who would be tried and hanged, Alan Calvert had never been of this world; he had simply vanished on the moorland air. Only I would know the truth, that he was as human as the rest of us; that he had died a miserable death, a death which, thanks to a toy windmill, was even more ignominious than his wife’s.
Miles Craven’s latest historical crime thriller, An Uncommon Attorney, is available from our Book Store in all eBook formats. To purchase a copy, click here: