Time’s Bending Sickle

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16. Time’s Scythe


Toby was still in the Low Countries.  It was spring, 1592, and Prince Maurice’s army was preparing to besiege Steenwijk, a town southeast of Groningen, important for the control of Friesland.  Toby and his company were building earthworks, and Captain Hall himself joined Toby and the others in working with spades and wheelbarrows.  Prothero was not to be seen.  One of the soldiers came to Toby with a request and addressed him as “lieutenant.”

Steenwijk, in the distance, looked somewhat different from other cities Maurice had attacked.  The walls were sloping and appeared to be very thick, stone backed with earth, and were configured according to the Italian principles Felix described to Toby at Berwick.

When the earthworks were complete, cannon began firing away at the city.  Toby stood with his hands over his ears, watching the shot kick up dirt, but do little damage to the walls.  Another battery fired heated shot over the walls.  Now and then a plume of smoke followed, but did not last long.  One shot knocked the steeple off a church, to general cheering among the gunners.

Captains Hall and Balfour joined Toby.  “The Spanish,” began Balfour, “call cannon espanta-vellacos, scare-cowards.”

Hall grunted.  “They’re doing no good here.  God’s jawbone!  If we could get the villains out to measure pikes with us, we should see who the cowards were.  All this dikers’ and ditchers’ work makes me wonder about the future of our mystery.”

After what must have been days of cannonading, a delegation came from the town to negotiate.  They filed into the prince’s tent; later they filed out and returned to the town.  The word rapidly spread that the prince would not accept the surrender terms they offered.

The cannon fire from the attackers did not resume, though the forces in the town fired intermittently.  But digging continued in earnest.  A series of protected trenches began creeping toward the main bastions.  Captain Hall picked up a spade full of dirt one afternoon, then dropped it with a cry of pain and clutched at his back.  He fell to the ground in immobilized agony.  Toby and some soldiers put him in a wheelbarrow and carried him, cursing, to his tent.

One dawn, when the diggers had resumed work and were focused on their task, a band of soldiers slipped out of the town and attacked before the guarding troops could respond with sufficient force.  Toby and his company were eating when they heard cries from the trenches.  Flinging aside his dish and plopping his morion on his head, he grasped his pike with his right hand and steadied his sword with his left, and led his men toward the fight.  As he ran, Toby could see men in the ditch trying to ward off pikes with spades, and the small guard force retreating under heavy attack.  Several men lay motionless near the ditch.  The popping of small arms fire increased as the prince’s musketeers ran forward and brought their weapons into play.  A party of the attackers was already dragging some prisoners back toward the town.  Toby scrambled over an earthwork, and several of the Dutch and Spanish soldiers from the town turned to meet him.  One raised a pistol, but it failed to fire.  Toby caught him under the chin with his pike, and blood washed over his breastplate.  Toby barely had time to parry a pike thrust from another soldier with the butt of his own pike.  Toby’s fellows then caught up with him and engaged the enemy with vigor.  Eventually more of the prince’s forces joined the fight and, at a whistled signal, the attackers began retreating to the town.  Toby and his company pressed their opponents until the fire from the walls became too threatening.  As they approached the gates, the members of the sortie turned and taunted the prince’s soldiers.  A panting Dutchman standing near Toby said, “They call us peasants, plowhorses, ditchers.”

Among the many dead and wounded being carried off the field after this encounter Toby saw Sir Francis Vere, grinning in pain and holding his bloody leg, surrounded by distraught Englishmen, one of whom was Sir Francis’ younger brother Horace.  Several of Toby’s company were wounded, and when they were seen to, Toby returned to assist others.  When he got to the part of the trenches where the assault first hit, he stopped and gasped.  There were at least a hundred men lying bloody and still in the trenches or along their banks.  I saw only a handful of dead I recognized as Spanish.

When Toby and another man helped a wounded Englishman they addressed as Captain Buck back to the camp, they saw Hall standing in front of his tent, leaning on his sword, twisted with pain which must have been emotional as well as physical.  He was cursing loudly, invoking various parts of God’s anatomy and his own back.


A later scene was curiously quiet.  It was dawn, but no one was digging, and Toby’s company, including a recovered Captain Hall, stood poised just out of range of one of the bastions.  Other units of the prince’s forces stood expectantly.  Hall turned to Toby.

“Hume, which bastion is to go first?”

“I didn’t hear, sir.”

“Well, run back quickly and ask Captain Balfour or Captain Lambert.  We need to be ready.”

Toby dutifully ran back toward a company that would be part of the second wave of what looked like an imminent assault.  He approached Captain Balfour.  “Sir, Captain Hall”–

At that moment a terrific explosion sent the bastion heaving and flying into the air.  Toby and the others flinched.  Toby turned to see an enormous billowing brown cloud flecked with red. On the edge of the cloud one could see several human limbs floating upwards, some of which moved convulsively.  A shoe was flung off one twitching leg.  Dirt and blood began raining down on the upturned faces of Toby and Balfour.  The smell of gunpowder mingled with that of freshly turned earth.  Toby glanced back at his company and screamed as he saw only mound of dirt. Balfour groaned.  “Och, mercy!  The mine blew outward!”  Three other explosions followed rapidly as mines lifted another bastion and a section of the wall into the air, along with fragments of their human occupants.

Toby ran toward the spot where he had left Hall and his company.  He could see a foot moving at the edge of the pile of earth, and began frantically digging with his hands.  In the meantime, drums and trumpets could be heard signalling an attack, and troops shouted and rushed forward.  Toby continued to dig, uncovering a leg, which he grasped and pulled.  The leg was not attached to a body, and Toby dropped it with a horrified expression.  He then saw a hand, the fingers of which made desperate beckoning motions.  Toby dug and pulled until he uncovered the man’s head.  He brushed the dirt from his face and blew in his mouth.  The man showed some signs of life, and Toby resumed digging.  The noise around him rose and fell.  Finally, he dragged the soldier from the mound.  When the rescued soldier indicated that he was breathing on his own, Toby turned back to the mound, searching for another survivor.  The mound was huge, and nothing moved.  After scrabbling here and there, Toby returned to the soldier, who lay on one elbow, spitting and rubbing his eyes.  Toby fell to his knees, covered his face, and sobbed.


Toby knelt on one knee before Prince Maurice.  They were in some building in the town.  The plaster on the walls and ceiling was cracked, and through the broken windows one could see several seriously damaged buildings.  The prince urged Toby to rise, and began speaking to him in French, his speech slightly inhibited by a bandage covering his left cheek.  He said, in effect, that he had great sorrow for the loss of Toby’s gallant captain and his company, that Toby’s request for a passport back to England would be granted, that he would send letters with him, and that his services would be welcomed if he chose to return.  Toby thanked him profusely in English, French, and Dutch, then left the room.


Toby knocked on the door of Jan van Meergen’s house in the city where he had spent the winter the year before.  The sleepy servant admitted him, and Van Meergen soon greeted him warmly, dragging him into a parlor that looked like something out of Vermeer and calling for wine, bread, and cheese.

“I missed our music this winter,” said Toby.  “I tried to send you letters, but it proved too difficult.”

“We missed you as well, my dear Hoom.  But I have taken care of your viol, and kept it in fresh strings.”

“Thank you.  I wish I could stay and make music with you and your friends, but I am carrying letters for England, and must move as quickly as I can.”

“Of course.  When shall you return?”

“I cannot tell.”  Toby looked down and stammered.  “I . . . I may try to make my way with music in London.  I was once a tutor, and may be again.”  He spoke very softly, still looking down.  “I have lost much in these wars.”

Ja, ja, war is bad, bad, bad,” said Van Meergen, shaking his head.  “But can you truly not  lodge here tonight?  And maybe play a very little music?”

“Thank you, I wish I might, but I must try to gain Flushing by nightfall.”  Toby drank his wine and rose.  “Thank you for your kind hospitality, and for taking my viol as a guest.”

Van Meergen rose and called for the servant to fetch Toby’s viol.  Toby hesitated.

“One favor I shall beg of you.  May I see Merlin’s glass once more?”

“Of course.”  They mounted the stairs to the “wonder chamber,” and Van Meergen drew out the crystal and handed it to Toby.  Toby looked into it for several minutes, frowning in concentration.  Then he shook his head, sighed, and returned it to his host.


Toby was mounted on a large old horse, his viol case thumping gently on its flank.  It was warm but a wet cloud was on the horizon.  At the edge of a village, two men carrying staves and wearing badges on their coats stopped him and asked, in English, for his passport.  He handed them a paper and showed them a packet.  “These are letters from Prince Maurice to my Lord Burghley and her Majesty’s Privy Council.”  The men looked at him skeptically, laboriously read over the passport, and returned it to him.

“You may ride on,” said the older of the men.  “But the word is that the plague is in London, and it is like that the lords have removed themselves.  Have a care.”


London, Visscher’s view.  Toby rode up a hill overlooking Southwark, the square tower of St. Mary Overie, and to the right, London Bridge.  Across the river, one could pick out the Tower east of the bridge, and the imposing bulk of gothic Paul’s to the west.  Toby rode on until he was on the broad street called Long Southwark leading to the bridge.  As he rode up to the arched gateway to the series of five- and six-story buildings that covered the bridge, he looked up at several dark, round objects stuck on poles above the arch.  Toby did a shocked double take at the same time as I recalled that these were human heads, placed there after their owners lost them for treason or some other felony.  As Toby passed along through the arch, the passage narrowed because of the shops on the lower floors of the buildings.  It was also rather dark, because the buildings, except for an occasional gap, covered the main passage.  Most of the shops sold cloth and miscellaneous goods, gloves, hats, stockings, though I did see a grocer and a saddler.  If the plague was present, there were no signs of it yet, for the street was full of people, and the shopkeepers stood by their doors and urged them to buy their wares.

Toby emerged from the bridge, and perhaps remembering that the Tower was on his right, turned down Eastcheap.  He would occasionally lean down from his horse and ask directions of the citizens, with varying results.  Some brusquely said they had no time, some laughed contemptuously, others offered to guide him for a fee.  Eventually he saw several men I recognized as soldiers by their jerkins or short coats with sleeves.  One wore the tangerine cloak of the earl of Essex’s men; he kindly told Toby that the court was at Greenwich.  He continued with directions, for which Toby thanked him and rode off, occasionally looking around at the crowded streets and the showy clothes of the citizens, as he retraced his steps and crossed the bridge, following the road east.


Toby rode up to the turreted gates of Greenwich Palace.  On his left flowed the Thames, and the impressive stone building stretched along the bank.  He showed his passport and packet of letters to one of the guard, while another held his horse, studying the viol case with curiosity.  The guardsman sent him on through several further gates and doors.  Gaudily dressed courtiers hastened or idled through the corridors.  Out one door he could see a bit of geometric garden alive with brilliant flowers and brightly painted carvings of lions, unicorns, and griffins atop tall poles.  A haughty middle-aged steward in elegant black velvet with a chain about his neck led him down yet another corridor, asked him to wait, and after a few minutes ushered him into a room where an old man sat at a table reading papers.  A younger man, a secretary, sat further down the table, writing.  Lord Burghley was a spare, neat man with a forked gray beard, prominent nose, and sunken lips suggesting a lack of teeth.  He was dressed in a black gown and cap, a pleated white ruff around his neck.  He looked up with an alert glance.

“You have letters from the Low Countries?”

“Yes, an it please your lordship.”  Toby handed over the packet.

“Please be at your ease.  Your name, lieutenant?”

“Tobias Hume, your lordship.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Hume.”  He broke open the packet and began to read.  After a while he looked up.  “Your company was killed at Stenwick?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“How did you escape?”

“By hap, my lord.  My captain sent me to question another officer just before the mine was sprung.”

“Your captain’s name?”

“Captain Hall, my lord.”

“Captain Hall’s company was in the pay of the prince, and not her majesty, as I recall.  A sad loss, in any case.  Was the prince’s wound serious?”

“It did not appear to be so, my lord.  I was told he removed the bullet himself.  It did not seem to give him pain.”

The old man nodded and resumed reading.  After a time, he picked up his pen gingerly, as if his hand were sore, and made some notes.  Then he looked up at Toby with an appraising gaze.

“When do you return?  We must send some of our English companies from the Low Countries into France.  They need experimented soldiers.”

Toby hesitated.  “An it please your lordship, I have been given leave to see to some business I have in England.”

“Well.  If that be the case, you may go.  Thank you for your pains.”  The old man nodded to the steward, who gave Toby a small purse, and gestured toward the door.

Toby hesitated, and then spoke.  “Begging your pardon, your lordship.  If I may be so bold, I would trouble your lordship for a passport.  To Lincolnshire and back to London.”

The lord looked up at Toby for a second.  “Very well.”  He nodded to the secretary, who found a fresh sheet of paper, wrote a few moments, sprinkled sand on the paper, and handed it to Burghley.  The old man signed it and pressed a seal into a blob of red wax.  “I had rather this were for France.  Fare you well, lieutenant.”

“Thank you, my lord.  Your grateful servant.”


It was dark when Toby approached London Bridge for the third time.  A number of buildings along Long Southwark had signs hanging over their doors–I noticed a spur, a buck, a bull, and one old house with a sort of sleeveless coat on its sign. Perhaps it was the Tabard, from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set forth; Stowe mentioned it in his Survey of 1598.  Toby stopped at the Bull.  He led his horse into the courtyard, where he was met by a boy of about twelve, who took the horse’s reins and pointed toward the common rooms.  Toby unpacked his viol and a leather bag.  Soon he was seated at one end of a long table with a foaming tankard and a plate of roast beef and mustard, boiled greens of some sort, bread, and cheese.  As he ate, using a spoon, his own dagger, and his fingers, he listened to a group of men at the other end of the table discussing the news.

One, a portly man with a thin beard and a grease-spattered doublet, smoked a white clay pipe, one of the few Toby had seen since coming from the Low Countries.  “I hear,” he said, “that there were two died of the plague in Billingsgate on Tuesday last.”

“I heard that the two died of a surfeit of eels,” said a lean, skeptical-looking man.

A third, an older man in black, said, “But do you know it to be the same two?”

The first man puffed on his pipe and said complacently, “Let it come.  I shall smoke it away, and if it get too hot, I shall go lie at Guildford at my brother’s.”

“If it come,” said the lean man, “I shall away to Cambridge. Mayhap it will carry off that traitorous Jesuit, Southwell.”

“But not Sir Walter Ralegh, who lies in the Tower also,” said the first.  “He is the patron saint of all tobacco-drinkers.”

The old man said dryly, “Who gives the grace of pride to his worshippers.”

The maid who led Toby to his chamber was not exactly pretty, but she was young and shapely.  She gave a number of coquettish glances and wiggles which Toby seemed to ignore.  Her parting question, “Will that be all, sir?” implied that she had many interesting services to offer, but Toby dismissed her with thanks and a small tip.  Toby crawled into bed and seemed to fall asleep, when he sat up with a start and a cry: “Captain Hall!”


Toby appeared on the outskirts of the Lincolnshire village he had left four years before.  He cut a more substantial figure now, with his military jerkin and boots, rapier, and horse.  His beard was fuller, and he was a bit heavier.  His sloping eyebrows still gave him an innocent look, but they also seemed to reflect some of the loss and pain he had experienced.  He stopped at a farmhouse and bargained with the tenant to feed and water his horse and keep him safe for a few hours.  Then, pulling his hat low over his face, he set out walking in the direction of a mill about half a mile away.  Looking at once eager and anxious, he approached a poor cottage near the mill.  The wattle and daub walls were cracking, and the thatched roof was old and patchy.  A dog ran out and barked at him, and an old woman came to the door.

“Mother Crane?  It’s Toby.”

The old woman peered at Toby and spat.  “I be no bastard’s mother.”

“Where’s Joan?”

“In Lonnon.”

Toby looked both worried and exasperated.  “I came from London.  Where in London is she?  What does she there?”

“No thanks to you, she is in service.  Sir James found her a place.”

“Where?  I want to be with her as a husband ought.  Did you get the money I sent?”

“We’ve seen no money, not since the captain was here.”

Toby looked distressed.  He took out a purse, withdrew a coin, and pressed it in the old woman’s hand.  “This should give you some relief.  Now where is Joan?”

The old woman looked at the coin and allowed two upper teeth to be seen.  “She and the child left a year ago Candlemas.  She went to serve Master Finch, an oil merchant at the sign of the Golden Hind in Cornhill.”

“The child?  Is it a manchild?  Its name?”

“Why, tis Will.  A froward little lad, he is.  Did you not know?”

“No.”  Toby’s looks reflected a complex play of feelings. “Is there news of Sir James and his family?  Are they well?”

“Alas, no.  The young master died of a fever this past winter.  Mistress Audrey keeps house for Sir James since Mistress Jane married her knight.  I know not where she lives now.”

“Do you recall the knight’s name?”

“Sir Andrew.  Sir Andrew–I cannot tell what.”


Toby’s ride back to London seemed more intense, more in haste.  He crossed London Bridge in such a hurry that several citizens cursed him for jostling them.  He rode up Bridge Street, into Gracechurch Street, and, after asking directions, turned left onto Cornhill.  He noticed that a few houses had crosses or “Lord have mercy on us” chalked on closed doors.  The street was quiet except for the barking and howling of a dog behind one of the doors.  At the sign of the Golden Hind, Toby dismounted and stopped abruptly at the door, which bore a large white cross.  He pounded on the door, but got no answer.

Just then, a man with a gray pointed beard came out of a house two doors down, and began fussing with the lock.  He had on boots and was carrying a large bag of coarse cloth.  He looked at Toby standing before the closed door, then called out, “You’ll get no answer there.  They have either perished or gone away.”

Toby approached the man, who gestured that he should keep a certain distance.  “Who has died here?”

“Master, mistress, and maid.”

“Did a woman named Joan, with a child, live here?”

“Aye, God rest her soul.”

“She’s dead?”

“Aye, just after Mistress Finch, Friday last.  But the child may be yet living.”

“For God’s sake, good sir, help me.  I am that child’s poor father.”

The man shook his head in sympathy.  “He went to the country with the apprentice just day before yesterday.  We can pray that they escape the infection.”

“Where did they go?”

“I know not, to my sorrow.  The apprentice I know only as Harry.  He is a tall lad of fifteen or thereabouts, black hair, with a scar just here.”  The man touched his right cheek.  “The lad has a good heart, and was fond of the child.”

“Can you or any neighbor tell me more that I might find them?”

The man shifted his bag and frowned in thought.  He shook his head.  “I am just leaving, as you see, and so have our neighbors opposite.  Mistress Finch had a quarrel with Mistress Hunter next door, so there was little talk between their houses.  Mayhap Master Barton at the Bear could tell you something.  Or the vicar at St. Peter’s church may know where the lad might go.  His speech tanged somewhat of the north, but not so much as yours.”

Toby thanked the man, and with pale and pained face, hurried toward the house with the sign of the Bear.  The mistress, a worried-looking woman who looked forty but who was probably not thirty, also knew the apprentice only as Harry.  She offered little other help.

At the church, he found the vicar, a fat, youngish man with a wisp of beard and rosy cheeks; he had a sleepy expression and yawned several times while telling Toby that Harry’s name was Pernis, and that he was from no further north than Cambridgeshire.

“How bad is the plague?” asked Toby.

“Not bad yet, thank God.  Some have fallen on Cornhill and neighbor streets, and some have left.  But I hear of few other deaths in other wards.  Many Londoners would not leave if the plague had visited at every other door, they are so tied to their business and fearful of losing a farthing in trade.”   He yawned again.  “I have watched all night with one of my parishoners. God has blessed me by allowing me to survive the plague as a child, so now I am a safe person.  I may not die of the plague, but I may of watching.”

Toby thanked the vicar and mounted his horse.  His viol case still bumping behind him, he rode out through Bishopsgate, then west along the city wall till he got to Cripplegate.  Then he struck out to the north, not seeming to notice that, on his left, he was passing the Charterhouse.


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