The Judge Hunter
– CHAPTER 1 – London, February 1664
Balthasar de St. Michel was contemplating his excellent good fortune at having such an influential brother-in-law as Samuel Pepys when he looked up and saw the head of Oliver Cromwell, mummifying on a pike. Revolting, he thought.
It had been there for—what—three years now? When the late king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, he ordered the moldering corpses of his father’s executioners dug up, hanged, and decapitated. “Symbolic revenge.” Ten of the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant were rather less fortunate than Cromwell. They got hanged and butchered while alive.
Balthasar shuddered and moved briskly along to his destination, the Navy Office in Seething Lane, a busy warren near the Tower of London.
“Brother Sam!” he said with a heartiness suggesting it was a social call.
Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, looked up from his desk. His face did not convey delight. He knew from experience that this was not a social call.
“Brother Balty. I fear you find me much occupied.”
“I was passing by. Thought to stick my head in. Say hello.”
“Good of you,” Pepys said heavily.
“What’s the commotion?” Balty said, looking out the window at the bustle in the courtyard below.
“Meetings. So as you see, I am somewhat—”
“Say, how long are they going to leave Cromwell’s head on that pike?”
Pepys sighed. “I wouldn’t know. For as long as it pleases his majesty, I expect.”
“Yes, I imagine that’s rather the point.”
“Weren’t you present when they”—Balty made a chopping motion—“lopped off the king’s head?”
“Yes. I was sixteen. Played truant from school. And was well whipped for it. Now if you’ll—”
“Didn’t you also see the execution of the first of the regicides? What’s his name . . . Harrison?”
“Yes. Well, good of you to—”
“Must have been ghastly. Hanging, disemboweling, cutting off the privy parts. Then—”
“Yes, Balty. It was horrid. So much so that I endeavor not to dwell upon it.”
“People will suspect you’ve a penchant for gruesome entertainments.” He pronounced the word in the French way, himself being half French. Balty and his sister, Pepys’s wife, had the tendency to lapse into their father’s native tongue.
“My penchant, Balty, is to be witness at great events. I do not attend only executions. I remind you that I was aboard the ship that brought his majesty back to England from Holland four years ago.”
Pepys did not mention—to Balty or anyone, for that matter—the diary he’d been keeping since 1660. He wrote it in a shorthand decipherable only to himself, so that he could tell it all.
“Well, good to see you,” Pepys said. “Do give Esther my love.”
Esther was Balty’s wife of two years, and the latest addition to the growing number of mouths it fell to Pepys to feed. His rise within the Navy Office had barely kept pace with the proliferation of impoverished relatives.
Balty’s father, Alexandre, had been a prosperous if minor member of the French aristocracy, Gentleman Ordinary to the great King Henri IV. He was in charge of the King’s Guard on that dreadful spring day in 1610 when his majesty was driven in an open carriage through the Tuileries. The guards lagged behind, preening for the ladies in the crowd. The fanatical Catholic François Ravaillac saw his opening and lunged, sinking his sword into the King. The King died quickly. Ravaillac’s death was a more prolonged affair.
According to St. Michel family lore, never entirely reliable, Alexandre redeemed himself some years later when he plucked Henri’s drowning son, King Louis XIII, from a pond after his horse threw him during an excited hare hunt. Thus he could claim the unique distinction of having got one king killed and another saved. A series of disastrous decisions had reduced him to his present station here in London, taking out patents for various inventions. One supposedly fixed leaky chimneys. It did not. Another was a device that rendered pond water fit for horses to drink. The horses died.
The proverbial apple did fall far from the tree. At twenty-four, Balthasar could claim no achievements, nor was there any indication of ones to come. The word “feckless” might have been coined to describe Balty. But his older sister Elizabeth, Pepys’s wife, adored him and doted on him. For her, Balty could do no wrong. Pepys fumed that he could do no right. Pepys loved his wife, though fidelity was not chief among his qualities. And so it fell to Sam, again and again, to provide money and employment for his pointless, impecunious brother-in-law.
“As to Esther,” Balty responded in a merry, conspiratorial tone, “we have news. We are with child.”
This stung. Pepys and his wife had been trying for ten years to produce a child. Sam was more and more convinced that the hellish operation he endured to cut out his kidney stone had rendered him incapable. Elizabeth meanwhile was plagued by feminine cysts. God himself seemed against them.
“Well, Balty,” Pepys said, forcing a wistful smile, “that is news. I am glad. Heartily glad. Bess will be very pleased to hear of it.”
“That is, we might be with child.” Balty threw up his hands to show his frustration at the impenetrable mysteries of conception. “I suppose we’ll know at some point.”
Pepys frowned. “Yes, I expect so. Now you really must excuse me. I’ve a great deal to do.”
A clatter of hooves and carriage wheels came from the courtyard. Balty peered down. “A personage of significance arrives. Very lush carriage.”
Balty considered. “Downing . . .”
“Sir George Downing.”
Balty made a disapproving face. “What, the one who lured his former comrades into a trap and got them butchered? Bloody Judas.”
Pepys said sternly, “Have a care with your tongue, Balty. And for my position here.”
“But surely you can’t approve of such a man as that? It was monstrous, what he did. Perfidy of the lowest—”
“Yes, Balty. We all know what he did. For which service the King created him baronet. Those he lured were among the men who’d condemned the King’s own father. Try to bear that in mind, amidst your deprecations.”
“I find him despicable. Honteux.”
Pepys agreed with his brother-in-law. Privately. He confined his own indignation about Downing—“perfidious rogue,” “ungrateful villain”—to his diary.
“Downing is Envoy at The Hague. And the King’s spymaster. He’s a powerful man, Balty. I’d urge you to keep that in mind before you go emptying your spleen in public houses. His lordship’s not someone you want for an enemy.”
“I shouldn’t want him for a friend.” Balty sniffed. “Not after what he did to his.”
“Well, what a pity,” Pepys said with a touch of pique. “I was about to suggest the three of us take tea together. Now really, Balty, I must say good day to you.”
Balty took a few steps toward the door.
“Might you have something for me? A position?”
“A position? Well, yes. I could arrange a position for you today. Aboard one of our ships.”
“Sam. You know I’m no good on ships. They make me ill. Even when they’re not moving.”
“This is the Navy Office, Balty. Ships are what we are about.”
“Couldn’t I be your aide-de-camp? Or subaltern, or whatever they’re called in the Navy. Here. On land.”
“Balty, I say this with the deepest affection—you have no qualifications. None. You have not one scintilla of qualification for Navy work.” Or any other kind, he thought.
Pepys regarded the specimen of aimlessness who stood before him. He knew what scene would greet him at home tonight—his wife berating him, either with icy silence or volcanic eruption. Elizabeth, being half French, was capable of both modes. It wasn’t fair. Again and again, Pepys had done what he could for Balty, usually in the form of “loans.”
“There might be something in Deptford, at the dockyards. Let me make some inquiries.”
“Oh, bravo. Thank you.” Balty added, “Nothing too menial.”
“I’m told I’ve got rather a good head on my shoulders,” Balty said. “No sense wasting it putting me to work hefting sacks of gunpowder and dry biscuit all day. Eh?”
Pepys inwardly groaned, but his desire to be rid of Balty was greater than his temptation to box his ears. “I’ll make inquiries.” Pepys rubbed his forehead in exasperation.
“Valerian,” Balty said.
“Valerian. The herb. They call it the Phew Plant. On account of the stink.” Balty pinched his nose. “But there’s nothing better for headache. Or the colic.”
“Thank you. But I have my hare’s foot for that.”
“Cures flatulence, too.”
Pepys sighed and pointed to the door. “Go, Balty.”
“Shall I stop in tomorrow?”