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The Serpent Garden

by Judith Merkle Riley

Paperback, 449 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14.95 |


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The Serpent Garden
Judith Merkle Riley

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NPR Summary

When Henry VIII arranges a marriage between his sister, Princess Mary, and the aging French king, widowed painter Susanna Dallet joins the entourage of the princess-bride, unwittingly carrying a perilous secret that will embroil her in the dark intrigues of the French court.

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Excerpt: The Serpent Garden


In the hour past midnight three bobbing lanterns could be seen making slow progress through a dug-up area where a new building was rising in the ruins of the Outer Temple. Two of the men with lanterns were carrying shovels. The third, tall and richly dressed, was guiding an old blind man holding a long, forked dowsing rod. They paused at a pit that revealed a section of the octagonal foundation wall of the ancient tower once called Le Bastelle.
"My lords, I feel the rod dip. There is precious metal there, beneath the earth." Blind Barnabas, the dowser, hesitated.
"It must be down there, Sir Septimus," said the swarthy young man in the leather doublet and muddy boots, "where they're putting in the foundations for the new hall." He held his lantern high to inspect the newly dug pit.
"Well, what are you waiting for, old man?" Ludlow the lawyer, heavily cloaked against the cold, peered over the edge.
"My lords, my payment," the old man quavered. "You promised to take me home once I had found it."
"As indeed we will, once it is dug up." The voice of the blind man's guide was suave. It was no ordinary treasure that could bring Sir Septimus Crouch, magistrate, antiquarian, and master of the conjuration of demons by the method of Honorius out beyond the safety of the City wall after dark. Here, beneath the ruins, lay one of the infernal's most powerful demons of destruction, chained as guardian to a treasure chest by an ancient spell. And both of them soon to be mine, gloated Sir Septimus.
"It's too cold for my old bones. The wind bites through me, standing here. Poor Barnabas has no hood."
"You shall have a hat of rabbit fur after this night's work, that I promise," said Crouch.
"Oh, my lord, a thousand blessings on you. In truth, you are the greatest gentleman that ever lived . . ."
"Enough. Master Dallet, you and Master Ludlow descend and dig there, where the rod points. I'll keep watch up here." Ludlow, the lawyer, cast a bitter look at his patron's face. Ruined and bought, he thought. I have sold my soul. And now I must labor beside this pretty tradesman. Look at him there, that painter, how he sweats, his eyes, how he hates Crouch. What brought him into the diabolist's power?
Pallid and triumphant, seamed with the lines of old vice, Crouch's face loomed above them. Cold green eyes were surmounted by eyebrows overgrown like twin thickets of poisonous weeds. His hair, dark mingled with silver, rose from his head in a smoky mockery of a halo. At the corners of his forehead, two broad, curling white streaks mingled with the dark, shining in the lantern light very like the curling horns of a ram, or perhaps a devil.
"Speed you, Master Dallet, and cease to regret your white hands there. What is beneath will repay your cares a thousandfold. Mistress, wife, tailor, and jeweler satisfied all at a blow. Whatever other venture could extend such promise?"
"Equal shares of everything, remember," said Ludlow, finishing his descent into the pit to join the master painter.
"Three ways, I said, and so it shall be," said Crouch, his voice smooth and reassuring. At the bottom of the pit, he could see only the feeble glimmer of two lanterns, and hear the crunch and clatter of metal digging dirt and stone. You, he thought down into the pit. Awake.
A trickle of life began to flow into the desiccated, captive thing below, and it drank greedily at the thin essence of avarice and hate seeping through the earth. Crouch could sense something dank and feel the presence of an alien mind, tentative and wispy, like the first stirrings of an evil thought. The hair rose on the back of his neck, and his spirit exulted.
"It's solid here," came Ludlow's voice. "It's a pavement."
There is a ring beneath the black stone. The thought came from the depths. Why, thought Sir Septimus, the thing is seeking me out. Excellent.
"Look for the ring beneath the black stone," said Crouch aloud. Ah, my dark friend, he thought, soon you, too, will be my creature.
I am Belphagor the Mighty. I belong to no man.
Nonsense, thought Crouch. He fingered the amulet, engraved with cabalistic signs, once again. "Onaim, perantes, rasonastos," he recited. The words encircled the thing in the chest below with a living, shimmering wall.
You bastard.
But of course. Did you think you were dealing with a fool? Crouch suddenly laughed aloud, so that the blind man started in fear.
Below in the pit, a heavy stone moved with a grating, scraping sound, and the scent of something old and rotted rose from the cavity it revealed. The circle of lantern light shone on a blackened lead coffer, sealed tight with some sort of ancient flux.
"It's an alchemist's seal," said the artist, kneeling to inspect and touch the curious object. "The box is lead. This is no ordinary treasure." There was a scrambling sound as the two men raised the box from the pit.
Master Dallet, kneeling in the mud, was working at the flux sealing the box with his knife. Suddenly there was a hissing sound, and the lantern flickered and was nearly extinguished in a sudden icy wind. "Who's there?" cried the blind man with a start.
Food. I need food. I have slept too long. Belphagor remembered that he had errands, but he had forgotten what they were. Something.
"Where's the gold?" cried the lawyer, scrabbling in the decaying trash in the box, a handful of blackened coins, some old bundles wrapped in rotten silk.
Delicious, thought Belphagor, as he sucked up the rage like hot wine. He was feeling stronger.
"This old cup is silver," said Dallet, scratching the tarnish with his fingernail.
"Their sacramental chalice," said Crouch, taking it from his hand. Crouch smiled as he ran a hand over the obscene figures chased beneath the cup's brim.
Beware. He's stealing it from you. Greed and envy, with a tasty spice of hate, flowed toward him. How easy it was, even after centuries of sleep, to stir men to the evil passions on which he fed. As clever as ever, thought Belphagor. I haven't lost the touch. The demon felt himself gaining substance, like a fine, acid mist. He stretched.
"That's valuable!" cried the lawyer, rising to seize the cup. Taking advantage of the lawyer's distraction, the painter had lifted a curious, decaying bundle from the box. The wrappings fell away to reveal the jeweled binding of an old book, its silky vellum almost undamaged by mildew.
Keep the book. It is what that old man wants most of all.
"You won't cheat me of this, Sir Septimus," said Rowland Dallet, clutching to him the strange old volume that had lain in the bottom of the chest. "You've taken the cup. I'm keeping the book."
"Equal shares!" cried Ludlow.
"That book is mine! Give it here before you regret it!" As Crouch moved toward him, the painter stepped beyond his grasp. Above them, Belphagor sucked up the confusion and rage like a tonic, growing stronger even as he fed the quarrel. The faint outline of form-limbs, a head-began to be visible as a kind of rolling, boiling smoke. The shimmering wall began to flicker.
"Then have your fair share only, you pander!" cried the painter, and with his heavy knife he slashed through the faded gilding of the calfskin spine of the book, severing it into three pieces. Flinging two into the mud, he held the center portion close to his chest. "I, for one, keep my bargains, unlike you gentlemen." The antiquarian's face grew dark with hate.
"The book of mysteries is mine," he said. "Mine by right."
"Then purchase back our shares, if you want it so much. We agreed this time to divide all, and I swear, you'll never cheat me again." Knife in hand, the younger man backed away from his patron, picking up the lantern he had set on the ground.
Kill him, urged the demon.
"I'll kill you for this," said Crouch, putting his hand on the Italian stiletto he always carried.
"Come near me and I'll burn it," cried Dallet, holding it near the lantern. As Crouch paused, horrified, the painter turned and fled into the night.
Lawyer and magistrate together watched the painter's flickering light vanish into the dark. Suddenly the demon's whisper, like a thought, came into Ludlow's mind.
Why settle for just one share?
The lawyer's brain began to hatch a plan. An anonymous letter, he thought. I'll send it to the husband of the painter's mistress. He'll kill them both, and my hands will be clean. And the painter's widow will know nothing of the fragment's value. I'll be able to buy it from her for a song.
Clever man. The demon was beginning to be restored to his old, comfortable, original form, dankly smoky and drifting, swelled with the evil energies he had generated around himself. His lower limbs, furry and greenish, swelled against the shimmering circle that held him, blotting it out here and there.
"My lords, have you forgotten poor old Barnabas's reward? Will you show me home now?" the blind man's voice quavered.
"Your reward?" said Crouch, setting down his lantern and taking his knife from his belt. "Why, of course," he said as he drove the stiletto directly into the old man's heart. At the deed, Belphagor expanded with a burst of energy and the circle around him shattered. Too late Ludlow's cry of horror warned Crouch. Looking skyward, the diabolist knight let out a howl of disappointment as he saw that Belphagor the demon had burst free.
Raging with frustration, the failed demon-master watched as a misshapen form rose higher into the night sky above him, blotting out a patch of stars from his view. The dark thing quivered and paused, as if trying to decide where to go. Then it began to drift toward the walls of the sleeping City, leaving behind only an echo of metallic laughter.


It was really the fault of the rain. I would never have listened to the temptations of strangers, and foreigners, too, if the rain hadn't been going on so long. Long rain steals away the light and leaves everything gray and possibly mildewed, and you can't get out to church to see who has new shoes or who has recut her bodice in the new French style because they wouldn't even wear them anyway, on account of the weather. So rain had spoiled my mood, and made me crazy for change. Love of novelty and amusement is a bad thing in a woman, for it leads her from duty. Or so says my book, The Good Wyfe's Book of Manners, which my mother gave me long ago for the time I would be married and which is as stuffed as a sausage with wise advice as well as excellent recipes for dainty dishes, medicines, and soap. I used to study this book every day, being young, and lacking my dear mother's advice, for I wanted to bring honor to her memory with my fine and praiseworthy housekeeping. Also I thought my husband, Master Rowland Dallet of the Painter-Stainers' Guild of London, would love me better if my cooking would come out. The book assured me that he would. It was just a matter of reading it correctly, which up to that time had eluded me.
Now the day the strangers came was late in March of the Year of Our Lord 1514, and it had been raining five days straight almost like Noah's flood. My husband had been away on business the whole time, and I was just perishing with needing to go out.
"I hate rain, Nan, I do hate it. Here it's supposed to be spring, and it's very near as cold and dark as winter, and there's not a spot of green anywhere outside, and besides that, this poky little room gets duller by the hour."
"You must always remember, you can't have flowers without the rain," said Nan, looking up from her knitting where she sat on the bench by the fire. Nan's face was serious because it nearly always was. She was so much older, you see, and people who are thin and old and serious like that always pray a lot, because they have renounced the shams of the world for higher thoughts about God and the Devil. Myself, I loved the shams of the world, but I loved Nan, too, who was my nursemaid when I was small and helped with the house, or rather, I should say rooms, now that I had become a married woman. It would not be fair to call her a servant even though I paid her, or, to be really honest, I would have paid her, if my husband had given me more household money.
"But it's dark, Nan. Everything's so gray. And that rattle, rattle, rattle! It's just going to make me lunatic! I need to hear the birds again, and talk to people. Spring! I need spring!" I leaned over my mother's big old brass-bound chest that used to have my wedding linen in it and threw open the shutters with a crash. The wind flew in and the rain spattered straight in my face. Below our front window, the Sign of the Standing Cat clattered and swayed as the rain beat on it. The gutter in the center of Fleet Lane rushed as deep as a river. The brightly painted housefronts shone gray and dismal beneath the sheets of water that tore down from the sky. Not a soul was out. So I leaned out the window and shook my fist and shouted up at the streaming heavens.
"Rain, stop now! I need the sun! I want light!"
"Hush this very instant!" cried Nan, pulling me in by the skirts. "Do you want people to think you've gone insane? You could get wet and ill! Think of the baby. Come in at once and stop shouting!" she pulled the shutters closed with a thump. "Oh, just look at you," she scolded, "you're all wet. What will become of you? I promised your mother I wouldn't let you be foolish. You know I did. Now settle down and have sense, for once. You wouldn't appreciate the sunshine half as much without the rain."
"Yes I would," I grumbled. "I love beautiful things. I don't need to see ugly ones just to like the nice ones better."
"You are entirely too interested in what shows on the surface for your own good," muttered Nan, who had earned the right of criticism not only by long service but by great forbearance on that little matter of wages.
"Master Dallet says that the appearance of things is very important, and that is why he has to take such great care with his clothes. Besides, I should not be seen to burden him when he must give seemly attendance on princes and patrons." My head and shoulders still damp, I wiped off my face on my sleeve and sat down on the bench by the fire. Mending was looking up at me from the basket by my ankles. I gave it an evil stare back.
"I suppose he considers that sufficient reason to spend your dowry at the tailor's and pawn your mother's wedding ring."