Unnatural Fire – Extract


Chapter One:Conjunction‘Take this down … “At the stroke of 8 o’clock this morning, while the night-watch Charlies still slept in their boxes, the Honourable Marmaduke Smallwood tied a knot with tongue which he can never untie with his teeth. To whit, he married a common Covent Garden trollop, here, in the chapel of His Majesty’s Prison of the Fleet…” Got it?’Her patchy wig now askew and her heavily painted make-up starting to smear, Lady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham, thrust both her hands through the grille and gripped tight, the better to keep her place at the front of the heaving crowd.At sixty years of age, her ladyship was in prison for debt. It was not the first time. She owed her druggist a mere trifle of six shillings, and the vile man had had the temerity to slap a writ on her.It wasn’t like this when Charles was king. But the darling man had been dead for fifteen years. And meanwhile Society had collapsed. Anybody could get on now. Merchants lorded it. A title meant next to nothing. English Society was ruined.To make matters worse, a Dutchman was on the throne. A Dutchman! A midget to boot. King Charles was six foot four, but this nasty little flat-lander was all of five foot.It was hard for the Countess to adjust to this new way of life, and impossible for her to take to this king. She, like most English people, detested the Dutch. After all the English had been at war with them for years. And now here was Herr Van Nincompoop, otherwise known as William of Orange, sitting on the English throne.But as Society had changed, becoming more and more obsessed with money, profit and wealth, the Countess herself had been driven into the marketplace to survive.Taking her cue from a number of successful women, she wrote for money.She had had a play, a heroic tragedy entitled Love’s Last Wind, performed at Lincoln ’s Inn Theatre. To save her embarrassment she had composed it under the nom de plume ‘The Aetherial Amoret’. Despite an outstanding cast including Thomas Betterton, Eliza beth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, it had closed on the fifth day. Her profits were nil.‘’Twas run down by the sparks of the Town,’ the Countess had explained to her friend the Duchesse de Pigalle, who was unable to attend the first performance due to a chin-cough, the second due to a quinsy, and subsequent performances were impossible because she had an attack of flatus and any other thing she could think of to escape the ordeal of sitting through two and a half hours of the Countess’s rhymed verse.

‘Young people!’ the Countess elucidated. ‘The brisk buffoonery and the false glittering of a youthful fancy will turn to ridicule our most delicate conversations.’

‘Harrumph!’ said Pigalle. ‘So zat is zat! Now you know you can write a play, you need not to do it again.’

The Countess had taken the hint, given up all hopes of becoming the new Aphra Behn and turned instead to journalism. She plied her scurrilous little pieces of tittle-tattle, or blasts against quacks, or fashions, or new plays and sold them to whoever would buy.

As fortune fell, the day the debt collector thumped on her front door Lady Ashby de la Zouche happened to be between engagements, and her funds were exceedingly low.

‘I bought the drugs because I was ill of an ague, don’t you see?’ she screamed at the bum-bailiffs who had been sent by the druggist to take her into custody. ‘Is the man a simpleton that he thinks I can earn money when I am sick?’