Shots are pleased to host an extract from the debut novel
The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys
The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewers (Moonflower Publishing)
It is the summer of 1669 and England is in dire straits. The treasury's coffers are bare and tensions with the powerful Dutch Republic are boiling over. And now, an investigator sent by the King to look into corruption at the Royal Navy has been brutally murdered. Loathe to leave the pleasures of London, Samuel Pepys is sent dragging his feet to Portsmouth to find the truth about what happened. Aided by his faithful assistant, Will Hewer, he soon exposes the killer. But has he got the right man? The truth may be much more sinister. And if the real plot isn't uncovered in time, England could be thrown into a war that would have devastating consequences ...
It was an hour after midnight and the whorehouse was on fire.
I was woken from a slumber by shouting from somewhere down the corridor. My head was light from wine and the pleasures lately taken. I looked around, but there was no sign of the girl who had been here when I shut my eyes. The last I could remember was her going to fetch more wine.
Then I caught it on the air. The smell of burning.
I slid from the canopied bed and immediately stumbled across the floor, my legs caught up in the shirt that hung down over my bare legs. I felt for my boots.
The noises from the corridor grew louder. Panicked screams and the pounding of feet along the old wooden floorboards. I pulled on my boots as quickly as I could, my eyes straining to see in the near- darkness. Then, picking up the small clay oil lamp that provided the room’s only illumination, I grabbed my little satchel and opened the door.
A cloud of acrid smoke stung my eyes and filled my lungs, causing me to choke. Figures ran past the doorway, shapes in the billowing smoke, their flickering lamps floating by like spectres.
Holding my arm to my mouth, I forced myself out into the corridor. All around I could hear screams of panic. People jostled against me, desperate to reach the staircase and the safety of outside.
In the crush, the lamp was knocked out of my hand and it shattered on the floor. A lick of flame from the spilled oil ignited a pair of silk curtains.
The smoke was growing thicker by the moment. I could hardly see a thing. All I could do was run with the crowd and pray that they knew their way around the building better than I did.
We rounded a corner and all of a sudden, the air cleared a little. I could make out an open space with a tall ceiling, the glint of gilded walls, and a skylight through which the moon illuminated the hazy air. I recalled going through an atrium as the girl led me to her chamber. That meant we were on the top floor, with three storeys between us and the safety of the street.
‘This way.’ Mother Quick stood at the top of a wrought-iron staircase, holding a lit candelabra. Her pink silk gown was dishevelled and torn down one side, her tall wig tilted askew.
‘Move!’ she repeated, as a crush of men and women ran past me and down the stairs. Only now could I see that some of them were naked.
I did not follow.
‘Mr Pepys, you must go,’ shouted Mother Quick.
‘Have you seen Mr Hewer? The man I came in with. I must find him.’
She thought for a moment, sweat making rivulets through her thickly powdered face.
‘He was at cards in the parlour. You’ll find him outside. Now go.’
A great billow of black smoke made us both choke. We held on to each other, gasping for breath.
It was then that we saw them.
Standing at the entrance to the corridor, flames rising around them, they looked more like devils than men. Four of them, dressed in the clothes of fine gentlemen, but with hair styled into rigid spikes. One carried a flaming torch.
Behind them the silk drapes that lined the corridor were ablaze. Looking around for new quarry, the men saw us and grinned.
With horror I saw that their teeth were filed into points like the fangs of an animal.
Mother Quick gripped my arm. ‘Mr Pepys. Run.’
I could hear their terrible cries behind us as we fled down the stairs. I knew without doubt that if they caught us we would be bludgeoned to death on the spot. And then Mother Quick tripped over her skirts, dropping the candelabra to the ground.
We were plunged into darkness.
Had the bawd let go of me at that moment then I do not think I would have survived. Fortunately, she knew the building inside and out. I held onto her for my very life, following blindly as she jerked right and left. We ran along a corridor, skirting around furniture that I could neither see nor remember from when I had last come this way, an hour or so ago, when the night had seemed so very different.
I heard an almighty crash behind us as one of our pursuers ran into a piece of furniture, or perhaps one of the fashionable objects d’art Mother Quick had littered about the house. Either way, it bought us precious seconds. As we half-tumbled down the last flight of stairs we heard dreadful screams from above; whether it was clients of the house, or those brutes consumed by the inferno of their own making, I could not tell.
But I had no intention of finding out.
We burst out of the open door and collapsed onto the hard ground of Bankside, coughing the acrid air from our lungs. I felt the sweat pouring off my brow turn cold in the night air and I thought for a moment I would vomit.
I turned just in time to see three of the wild men crashing through the door. I attempted to pull Mother Quick into the shadows, but they ran straight off into the night, whooping and hollering. As they passed us I saw that their cudgels were stained with blood, and they carried whatever valuables they had been able to take from the house as they went.
I staggered to my feet and turned to help Mother Quick, but she had already gone in search of her girls.
‘Sam!’ A voice cut through the darkness.
I turned to see Will Hewer running towards me. His white shirt was torn and smeared with dirt, his natural blond hair turned almost black with soot and ash. Like me, he had been forced to leave without his wig. He grasped my arms, scanning my face with concern.
‘God be praised! I couldn’t find you. Are you hurt?’
I started to reply but fell to another fit of coughing. Will slung my arm around his broad shoulders and led me across the cobbled street.
‘Who were they?’ I managed to sputter.
‘I know not. They looked like devils. But I think they have gone.’
We reached the shelter of an empty stable. Amid the warm, sweet smell of horses, well fed and kept, Will leaned me against a wall, where I gasped in the cold air, trying to recover my strength. The nag in the stall next to us eyed me with nervous curiosity and then went back to chewing hay.
I could hear the concern in his voice, and was suddenly aware of how unaffected he seemed by our narrow escape. By contrast, my hands shook, and water streamed from my stinging eyes.
There was an explosion and the sound of falling glass as the top floor windows blew out, flames engulfing the silk curtains that hung on the other side. I felt a pang of sadness as I looked over at the grand old townhouse, once known as the sapphire of the stews, the very pinnacle of the Southwark brothels. Soon it would be gone forever.
Mother Quick strode back and forth on the hard dirt road, her face tight-lipped with anger and pain. She was so close to the flames, I feared her voluminous skirts might catch an ember and be set alight, but she seemed not to notice. The nightwatchmen had started to arrive with buckets of sand and water, and she was ready to take command whether they liked it or not.
‘Sam?’ Will said again, placing a hand on my shoulder. ‘Time to go.’
‘Of course,’ I replied, looking down at my filthy and torn undershirt. ‘Elisabeth will murder me.’
‘We shall stop at my house first. I shall lend you a suit of clothes.’
With one last look at the awful scene, we set off in search of a boatman to take us home.