Humphrey Trencom rolled over and sniffed at the air. He was caught in that blissful state of nonbeing that lies somewhere between slumber and wakefulness. He was aware of his legs but only as weights. He could feel his hands but only their warmth. Yet his vigilant nose was already alert to the fact that something in the here and now in this very chamber was not quite right.
In the time it took to trigger an alarm in his somnolent brain, Humphrey allowed his thoughts to drift back to the world of sleep. He had been dreaming of roasted capons and honeyed parsnips, of succulent woodcock and jellied eels. His sleepy reverie had transported him to the great banqueting hall of Whitehall Palace, where he was the seating partner of King Charles II. His brain had failed to register that this was as unlikely as it was improbable. Instead, it was once again focusing itself upon the long oak trestle that seemed to stretch to the furthest end of the room.
In the dream-filled orbit of Humphreys head, the tabletop was laden with partridge pies, pomegranate pastries and quince conserves. There were castors of pepper and gallipots of oils, pitchers of chocolate and posnets of sauce. At the centrepiece of this display was a great tower of English cheeses more than twenty different varieties that were stacked up on a decorative pewter platter. Humphrey himself had supplied all the cheeses for this morphean banquet and he was about to proffer his expert advice to the monarch, who was currently seated on his right.
And which, asked the king with uncommon familiarity, do you particularly recommend we try?
Humphreys favourite had long been the smoked Norfolk tynwood. Gingerly and with great care, he eased it from the base of the tower, causing the pile to wobble slightly. Then, after showing it to the king, he sliced a thick wedge from the tynwood round. He noticed that the pock-marked rind was coated in a thin film of ash that imparted an oaky softness to the lemony flesh of the cheese. Humphrey put it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Ah, yes there was a tangible richness to the scent. The smell of bonfires and woodsmoke was working its way deep into his consciousness, causing his still-sleeping mouth to dribble with saliva.
It was at exactly this point in the dream that his conscious nose flashed a message of alarm to his not-quite-conscious brain. And just a second or two later, an abruptly awoken Humphrey realized that not everything was quite as it should be on this hot late-summers morning.
The smell of smoke had not come from the slice of Norfolk tynwood; rather, it was drifting in through the casement window invisible to the eye but altogether present in the sensitive nostrils of Humphrey Trencom.
Mercy! he said to himself as he sat bolt upright in bed. Something is most certainly amiss. He straightened his nightcap, which had slipped over his eyes, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. As he did so, he noticed that the room was infused with a dull orange glow. With a growing sense of alarm, he climbed the four steps up to the high leaded window that had a view over much of the city.
The sight that greeted his eyes was so shocking and unexpected that he had to clutch at the woodwork to stop himself from reeling. Oh, Lord, he said. Oh, my good Lord. As far as he could see, from St Giless in the north to Thames Street in the west, the entire city of London was aflame. Canning Street was a sheet of fire; the Exchange was a mass of burning timber. Botolphs Wharf was ablaze. Even some of the dwellings on London Bridge appeared to be smouldering from within.
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