Authors: Susanna GREGORY
The afternoon had been growing gradually darker as storm clouds massed overhead. The scholar glanced up at them and realised he would not be able to reach the abbey at Ely, still some nine miles distant, without getting drenched. In his saddle bags, he carried several finely illustrated manuscripts that had been given to him by the grateful parents of successful students; if they became wet, the ink would run and they would be ruined. He cursed softly to himself. The summer and autumn had been unusually dry, so why did the heavens have to choose now, while he was forced to travel, to soak the parched earth with rain? With an irritated sigh, he urged his horse into a trot along the raised causeway that snaked through the desolate marshes. Since the storm would break long before he could hope to claim refuge with the monks at Ely, he resigned himself to the fact that he would have to take shelter at the Franciscan convent of Denny Abbey, the ramshackle rooftops of which he could already see poking above the scrubby Fenland vegetation.
From a dense tangle of bushes at the side of the road, three men watched the scholar’s progress impatiently and heaved a sigh of relief when the sound of his horse’s hooves finally faded into the distance. They had no wish to be caught unsheltered in the storm that was brewing either. They clambered down the slippery bank of the causeway to the barge that was moored at the side of the canal, and seized the ropes by which it was drawn along. It was more usual for horses to be used for towing barges, but there was always a risk that the beasts might give away the presence of the boat to travellers on the road. And that would be unfortunate for everyone concerned.
The three men hauled on the ropes, and the barge was on the move, slipping soundlessly along the black, glassy waters of the channel that eventually meandered behind Denny Abbey’s walled gardens. They heard voices as the scholar was admitted into the nuns’ guesthouse, and then all was silent again except for the gurgle of water under the keel and the occasional sound of dead, dry reeds snapping under their feet as they walked. When the bargemen reached their destination, they coiled the tow ropes and began to unload their cargo – a number of roughly sewn sacks, the contents of which clanked together mysteriously as they were moved.
One of the men, younger than the others and curious, started to untie the cord that fastened the top of one particularly heavy sack. His friends, seeing what he was about to do, leapt forward to stop him.
‘Fool! We were told to deliver the sacks without asking questions. They will kill us if they think we have been prying into their business!’
The young man scowled angrily. ‘If the cargo is so valuable, why did you charge them so little to bring it here? And why did you agree to deliver it at all if you are so frightened of them?’
‘Because it was impossible to refuse once asked,’ said the other, lowering his voice, and glancing around him uneasily, ‘but when we have finished here, we will lie low for a while to make sure we are not hired for this again.’
The younger man treated his friends to a look of scorn for their timidity and returned to the heavy labour of removing the sacks from the barge to their hiding place. After a moment, the other two followed suit, straining and sweating under the weight of the irregularly shaped bundles.
Their voices, however, had carried across the otherwise silent Fens. Had they looked behind them, they would have seen the veiled head of a nun observing them from one of the upper windows of the convent. She stood unmoving, watching them struggle with their bundles until, with evident relief and a few final furtive glances around them, they finished and slipped away as silently as they had arrived. Within moments, the first drops of rain began to fall, lightly at first, but then harder until the lonely marshes were enveloped in a misty white pall as far as the eye could see. The nun tapped a forefinger on the windowsill thoughtfully before going to pay her respects to the scholar waiting in the guesthouse.
The thief pressed back into the shadows as the soldiers of the night watch passed so close he could have touched them. He grinned to himself, guessing that they were more interested in returning to the fire in the guardroom than in checking the dark streets and alleyways for furtive figures who were breaking the curfew. Once the guards’ footsteps had echoed into silence, the thief continued his meticulous examination of the windows and doors of houses, hunting for a faulty lock that would let him inside. Just as he was beginning to despair, he discovered that a hatch leading to a cellar had been carelessly left open.
The thief looked both ways before easing himself through the hatch and pulling it closed behind him. The cellar was pitch black, but this did not deter the thief: he was used to working under difficult conditions. He groped his way around damp walls and a low ceiling with flaking plaster but, to his disappointment, found the cellar contained nothing he could steal to sell in the taverns. There were a few empty wooden boxes, all of them soft and rotten with mould, but the room smelt wet and stale and had evidently been disused and forgotten for decades. He flapped dispiritedly at a cobweb that brushed across his face and decided to try for richer pickings elsewhere.
As he began to make his way towards the door, his foot bumped against something hard. He crouched down, hands extended to assess whether it was something worth taking. A crate of wine! His fingers traced the smooth glass outline of bottles that the moist air of the cellar had rendered damp and cold. They had probably been there for years and their contents would doubtless be sour by now. But, reasoned the thief, whoever bought them from him in the Brazen George would not know that until they had paid, and by then he would be long gone. Deftly, he began packing the bottles into the sack he carried over his shoulder, wrapping each one in the rotting straw that littered the floor so they would not clank together and betray his whereabouts to the night watch.
Six bottles were wrapped and stowed away when the thief became aware that the hatch to the cellar was opening and someone else was entering. Frightened, he pulled the drawstrings of his bag tight and hefted it over his shoulder, abandoning the remaining half a dozen bottles. He stood up carefully and moved back among the crates, desperately hoping that the second intruder had not brought a lamp with him. The thief was small, quick and expert at gaining access to other people’s property, but he abhorred fighting and violence, and avoided any kind of confrontation with his victims if he could. Thus, when the second man moved silently into the centre of the room, the thief nimbly sidestepped him in the inky darkness and was out into the night as fast as his legs could carry him.
He darted towards the river and disappeared into the fringe of reeds that choked the banks, breathing heavily. Moments passed and there was no sound of pursuit: he was safe. He heaved a shuddering sigh of relief and lowered the sack of bottles to the ground next to him while he considered his next move. He could sell the wine for enough to keep him in bread for a week if he told people it was finest claret and charged a penny a bottle. He raised an eyebrow and allowed himself a grin of satisfaction: perhaps it had not been such a bad night after all.
Back in the cellar, the other man had lit a candle and was staring down at the half-empty wine box with a mixture of horror and fury. A rat slithered across the floor behind him and he spun round, a knife appearing in his hand as though by magic. He relaxed when he saw the rodent’s tail disappear behind the pile of crates, but did not sheath his dagger. He rubbed his chin with a hand that shook, and wondered who had stolen the wine and why. A glimmer of a smile flickered across the man’s harsh features: whoever it was would be in for an unpleasant shock when the bottles were opened. The certain knowledge that the crime would not go unavenged helped to counterbalance the intense and impotent anger he felt towards the thief.
Cambridge, late January 1353
Rain slanted across Michaelhouse’s yard in a steady hiss, drumming on the wooden roof of the stable and staining the College’s honey-coloured stone walls a deep amber. The cat, its fur soaked into black spikes, sat morosely under the meagre shelter of a leafless tree and watched a scholar clad in the ceremonial red robes of a University doctor splash his way across the muddy yard. The scholar paused for a moment to glance up at the dull grey sky before disappearing through one of the doorways that led to the rooms where the students and their masters lived.
‘We will be late,’ he warned, looking round the door of Brother Michael’s chamber and seeing that the monk was not yet ready to leave. Michael made no reply and stood in front of a strategically placed silver plate plastering his thin, light brown hair into place with dabs of water. This performed to his satisfaction, he turned his attention to his newly purchased Benedictine habit, brushing away imaginary dust with the head of a teasel.
Matthew Bartholomew sighed impatiently, striding across the room to lean out of the window. ‘The bell has already stopped ringing.’
Michael waved a dismissive hand and continued with his primping. ‘There is no point in attending these festivities if we do not look our best, Matt,’ he said, taking up an ornate cross of gold and hanging it round his neck, careful not to disturb his immaculate hair.
‘It is not you being installed as Master of the Hall of Valence Marie, Brother,’ Bartholomew pointed out. He gazed across Michaelhouse’s yard at the undergraduates hurrying from their lectures to the midday meal. ‘In fact, I do not understand why we should be there at all. I still have not finished Galen’s
with my third-year students, there is an outbreak of sickness among the river people, and I want to work on my treatise on fevers. This installation is a distraction I could do without.’
Michael gave an exasperated shake of his head. ‘You think of nothing but your work these days,’ he chided. ‘This grand installation will be good for you. You can see all the great and powerful of the University gathered together under one roof and watch the games being played.’
‘Over the past five years I have seen enough of the University’s games to last me a lifetime,’ said Bartholomew vehemently. ‘I want only to teach my students and attend my patients.’
Michael’s green eyes gleamed. He thrived on the intrigues and plots that were as much a part of University life as teaching, and loved nothing more than to attend an event like the installation of the new Master of the Hall of Valence Marie, where he could watch alliances being formed and plans being hatched to avenge ancient grievances. As well as being a Fellow of Michaelhouse, Michael was Senior Proctor, a position that meant he was well-placed to observe – and meddle in – the murky affairs of the University and its scheming scholars.
‘Besides,’ the monk said briskly, ignoring Bartholomew’s grumbling and turning his head this way and that as he studied his reflection in the plate, ‘all Fellows of Michaelhouse were personally invited by the Master-Elect. It would be ungracious to decline, especially if the reason is that you prefer teaching and seeing patients.’
He took a thick winter cloak from a hook on the wall and draped it over his shoulders, fiddling with it until he was sure the expensive cloth fell in even folds before carefully lifting the hood over his head. Then he stepped over to the plate once more and admired the finished product, adjusting a strand of hair here and a fold of his habit there. He glimpsed his friend’s morose expression as he continued to stare out of the window and tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
‘Forget your students, Matt. Forget your patients, too. Enjoy yourself for once!’
‘With a group of men whose idea of fun is an all-night debate on the efficacy of Ockham’s Razor?’ asked Bartholomew gloomily. ‘Or, worse still, with those of our colleagues who will drink the new Master’s free wine until they are sick, violent or insensible?’
‘You are in a miserable mood today,’ said Michael, amused. ‘But you will make us late by keeping me here chattering. Come on, hurry up. We do not want to arrive last.’
Glumly, Bartholomew followed Michael down the wooden stairs and out into the yard, a morass of churned mud from the rain that had fallen almost incessantly since Christmas. The cat, seeing the door had been left open, tried in vain to reach it without getting its feet wet. Despite his ill humour, the physician could not help smiling when he noted a similarity between the cat’s dainty, careful footsteps and those of Michael, who held his habit clear of the ground with thumbs and forefingers. The monk cursed and swore at the brown slime that oozed over his carefully polished sandals in language that belied his contemplative vocation.
‘I have never seen such rain,’ he muttered. ‘We are a cursed race. First came the pestilence that claimed so many lives; then there was the drought of last summer when we baked under a sun that turned the whole country brown; and now we have endless rain. The crops will rot in the fields and there will be an even greater shortage of bread than there is now. You mark my words.’
‘Rain in winter should not be a problem,’ said Bartholomew, splashing along beside Michael, oblivious to the mud. He had dressed in his best scarlet robe when he had finished teaching – around ten o’clock that Saturday morning – but had been called out to tend to a patient with a winter fever. His feet were already wet inside his boots and avoiding puddles would make little difference to him now. ‘It is summer rain that rots the crops in the fields.’
Michael shot him a disbelieving glance and continued with his litany of complaints. ‘This rain is worse than snow. The roof leaks in my room and I can barely sleep for the noise of drips falling into the bucket.’
Bartholomew recalled pulling the bed-covers over his ears the night before in a vain effort to muffle the sound of Michael’s snores thundering from the room above his, and treated the monk’s words with scepticism.
‘And the dampness is unbearable. All my bones ache with it,’ Michael added, looking resentfully up to a lead-grey sky that made the noon light seem like late afternoon.
Bartholomew turned to him in concern. ‘Do they? Do you need a physic? I have a poultice that, if applied daily, can ease soreness in the joints.’
Michael sighed and gave a wry grin. ‘I am not so bad that I need a physic. It is nothing a dry blanket and a doze by a fire would not cure. But this foul weather must be hard on your older patients.’
Bartholomew nodded. ‘A number of them are complaining about painful joints. But it is this winter fever that worries me. I have never seen anything quite like it.’
‘It is not like the Death, then?’ asked Michael, picking his way cautiously around a gigantic puddle that shivered and rippled as the rain pattered into it.
Bartholomew shuddered. ‘No, thank God!’ Even after five years, Bartholomew had not forgotten his helplessness in the face of the plague that had defied all treatment and seemed to strike at random, carrying off at least a third of the population of Cambridge and completely annihilating the people who lived in the impoverished little settlement near the castle, where cramped and filthy conditions seemed to hasten the disease’s relentless progress.
They reached Michaelhouse’s great gates and unlatched the wicket door. Michael stepped into the lane and rinsed the mud off his feet in a puddle of cleanish water, wincing at its coldness. They walked up the lane and then along the High Street towards the Hall of Valence Marie. For a while, they were forced to abandon conversation and concentrate on avoiding the deep potholes that lurked unseen under the flooded surface of the road.
They passed St Michael’s Church, short, squat and an even darker grey than usual with the rain blackening its walls, and then St Mary’s with its creamy yellow stone and delicate traceried windows. The houses between them looked shabby in the wet, and the resin from their timbers leeched out to ooze in dirty brown trails down their whitewashed walls.
The Hall of Valence Marie, where Bartholomew and Michael were to attend the ceremonies for the installation of its new Master, stood just outside the town boundary near the Trumpington Gate. They were about to pass through it when a young man tore up to them, gasping for breath, his eyes wild and his clothes dishevelled.
‘Brother Armel is dying! It was not what we intended! You must believe me!’ He took a handful of Michael’s best cloak and tried to haul him back towards the town. Michael disengaged himself firmly, resentful at being manhandled after he had taken so much trouble with his appearance.
‘What are you shouting about?’ he demanded crossly, trying to brush the creases out of his sleeve. ‘Who is Brother Armel and what must I believe?’
The boy gulped for breath, clenching and unclenching his hands and clearly forcing himself to resist the urge to grab at Michael again in his agitation.
‘It will be quicker if you speak rationally,’ said Bartholomew gently, taking pity on the frantic student. ‘Tell us what has happened. Is someone ill? Do you need a physician?’
The young man nodded and then shook his head. He took a deep breath, screwed his eyes tightly shut and fought to gain control of himself. ‘We – I and the other students – were drinking in the Brazen George,’ he began, referring to a tavern near St Mary’s Church. Michael gave him an admonishing stare. Students were not allowed in the town’s taverns, chiefly because the University did not want bands of drunken undergraduates meeting gangs of equally intoxicated townspeople: the relationship between University and town was uneasy at best, violent at worst, and it took very little to spark off fights that resulted in bloodshed on both sides.
The young man continued. ‘A man sold us wine. We took it home and Armel drank from the bottle. Then he fell into a swoon. He was poisoned! You must come!’
The lad’s story was still far from clear, but Bartholomew guessed they would prise no more sense from him until one of them went to see Brother Armel. It occurred to him that not even the sensibilities of the Master-Elect of the Hall of Valence Marie could be offended if his excuse for being absent was that he was dealing with a medical emergency. He seized the opportunity with sudden enthusiasm.
‘You go to the ceremony,’ he said to Michael. ‘I will see Brother Armel.’
‘But he needs you both,’ pleaded the student, his hands furiously twisting the buckle on his belt to avoid laying hands on the august personage of the University’s Senior Proctor a second time. ‘He needs last rites and a physician.’ His self-control finally broke and he grasped Bartholomew’s cloak to haul him back up the High Street, evidently assuming Michael would follow.
‘Then you need a priest, not a monk,’ called Michael, standing firm. ‘One of the Gilbertines will oblige, or the Carmelites just across the road. I have pressing business to attend.’
‘You can give last rites!’ said the student accusingly, turning back to him without relinquishing his hold on Bartholomew. ‘You did so during the Death – Father Yvo told us how you gave last rites to his predecessor. And you have heard my confessions before now!’
The student was right. While friars lived and worked among the people, monks led contemplative lives in the cloister and were not authorised to hear confessions or give last rites. But Michael had been granted special dispensation by his Bishop so that he might attend the needs of the small number of Benedictines enrolled at the University. During the plague, he had been tireless in his spiritual duties and had trudged around the town with Bartholomew tending the hopeless cases. These days, however, he seldom drew on his authority, preferring to advance the Benedictines’ earthly interests rather than their spiritual ones.
‘Please!’ cried the student, desperation making his voice crack. ‘We need the Senior Proctor
a physician. Armel has been murdered!’
How poor Armel had gone so suddenly from a swoon to being a murder victim was unclear, but Bartholomew allowed himself to be led back along the High Street by the frightened student. Michael followed reluctantly, muttering bitterly about missing the installation ceremony to which he had been so looking forward. Bartholomew did not for an instant imagine they would find Brother Armel murdered, nor even poisoned. The student who tugged and heaved at his cloak to make him hurry was very young – no more than fifteen years old at the most – and Bartholomew was sure he would not be able to tell a drunken stupor from an unconsciousness brought on by poison. He wondered how much of the installation he might legitimately escape, although a backward glance at Michael’s black scowl suggested the answer would be very little if the monk had any say in the matter.
‘Which hostel do you live in?’ Bartholomew asked, more to soothe the student’s increasing agitation than to solicit information.
‘Bernard’s,’ said the student, hauling harder still as they drew closer to the dirty brown façade of St Bernard’s Hostel. ‘My name is Xavier.’
‘Bernard’s is a Franciscan institution,’ said Bartholomew, puzzled, ‘so why are you not wearing your friar’s habit?’
Xavier gave him a look of disbelief. ‘We could not go to the Brazen George wearing our habits! The landlord would know we were students and would refuse to serve us.’
Before Bartholomew could comment further, he was propelled into the building. A large room that opened directly off the street was occupied by six students, all arguing among themselves in apprehensive whispers. None of them wore either scholars’ tabards or the robes of Franciscan novices, and Bartholomew imagined the entire hostel must have been involved in the illicit trip to the tavern.
As they entered, the students parted to reveal someone lying on the floor with his eyes closed. Bartholomew knelt to examine him while Michael snapped questions at the others.
‘Where is Father Yvo? He is Principal here, is he not?’
Miserably the students nodded, some hanging their heads and none able to meet the stern visage Michael reserved for dealing with recalcitrant undergraduates.