Authors: Leonard Tourney
Praise for Leonard Tourney’s previous Matthew Stock Mystery,
The Players’ Boy is Dead
“Marvelously readable . . . This detective story, written in the style of sixteenth-century England, is
vividly evocative of its era.”
“A truly original suspense novel set in Elizabethan England—a most satisfying story.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Also by Leonard Tourney
Published by Ballantine Books:
THE BARTHOLOMEW FAIR MURDERS
THE PLAYERS’ BOY IS DEAD
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published, in hardcover, by E.P. Dutton, Inc., in 1984.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means
electronic or mechanical
recording or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented
without permission in writing from the publisher
except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine
newspaper or broadcast.
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Ballantine Books Edition: March 1989
FOR MARTHA, ANNE AND MEGAN
Table of Contents
is a novel of detection and of the supernatural. The persons, events, and more specifically the phenomenon described in the book as the Chelmsford Horror are figments of the imagination. The place, time, and psychological atmosphere, however, are real. Chelmsford was—and remains—a town in Essex, England; and during the reign of Elizabeth I over two hundred men and women were hanged for witchcraft there, an act of carnage that dwarfs the better-known episode of a century later that made immortal the name of the little town of Salem, Massachusetts.
It is small consolation in this more rational age to think that the great majority of those accused, tried, and hanged in Chelmsford were innocent—or, at worst, guilty only of being old, in most cases female, and, in the eyes of their neighbors, strange. Hardly more consolation to consider that a minority of the alleged witches may have been witches in fact! Innocent or guilty, either would have cause, were it possible, to rise from their graves to avenge themselves on their accusers. One must keep an open mind in such matters.
CHELMSFORD, ESSEX, ENGLAND
In the dark, gloomy house on High Street, things were going from bad to worse. Susan’s master, a glover by trade, was afflicted by a mysterious ailment that his physician was unable to diagnose, much less cure. The glover’s wife, a terrible termagant in the best of times, had become more shrewish and willful than ever, and poor Susan herself, one of the two remaining servants in the house, had fallen afoul of a strange melancholy humor that made her continually nervous and morose. For weeks she had been moving about in a fog, starting at every knock, creak, rattle, or slam, shunning certain rooms in the house as though they were under heavy curse, and performing strange rituals, many of her own devise, that gave her small comfort in her condition of helpless and seemingly inexplicable dread. Before she made a bed, scoured a pot, swept the rushes, or fetched water from the well, she blessed herself. Not once but thrice! When passing an old woman in the street, she would quickly avert her eyes. She avoided strange dogs, especially black ones, and around her neck she wore an amulet, a small leather pouch filled with sweet scented herbs. Ursula had given the amulet to her. Ursula was her friend. Susan believed the amulet would protect her, and although she suspected it was the cause of the skin rash on her breast, she was afraid to take the amulet off.
Her melancholy had developed to such a state that Susan regularly forgot to perform the most ordinary and essential
chores, which is how it was that on a certain evening in mid-September, darkness having already enveloped the street like a cheveril glove, she had quite forgotten to empty the upstairs chamber pots. Her master’s young nephew and house-guest, alerted to her negligence by the reek, gave her a terrible scolding. He called her a dumpish whey-faced slut and lazybones. He said she wasn’t worth the food she ate.
Blubbering and disconsolate, she threw a wrap around her shoulders and carried the offending pots out-of-doors, casting a nervous eye at the big back yard with its cluster of shadowy outbuildings. She made her way down the long garden path without a moon to guide her steps, listening to the crickets’ chorus and the flutter of her heart. She hated the dark more than anything, and the darkest of places was the privy.
The wooden shed, decked with a lush growth of vines and scarlet runners, loomed before her. She took a deep breath of the warm night air and kicked open the door. The stench assaulted her nostrils. She bent down for the low lintel and entered. The door creaked shut behind her.
Worse than a hundred rotting corpses in the charnel house, she thought, braving the stench to empty the pots. She groped in the darkness until her hand found the lime bucket, and with the little handspade kept therein she scattered a fine layer of the stuff over the ordure, like the priest swinging his censer. Then she pushed the door open and went out into the lesser darkness of the night.
She froze at the sound, then spun around in the direction it came. Next to the privy was a ragged gorse bush, and just beyond its shadow she perceived a shape that she knew was no part of the bush. The shape was motionless but in dim outline female, as the voice whispering her name had been.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her voice quavering. “Who is it that calls my name? Brigit, is that you?”
The shadow stirred and slowly moved toward her. Her heart leaped into her throat, and in her fright she let the pots slip from her grasp and they went clattering onto the cobbled path. “Oh, Christ my Saviour! It’s you, Ursula. Oh, Jesus
God, Ursula. You gave me such a fright! You make no more noise than a cat.”
Her friend laughed, advanced until Susan could see the girl’s features quite clearly, even in the dark.
‘‘I thought you were a ghost,” Susan said.
Ursula laughed again. “We’re meeting tonight,” she said. “In the loft.”
The invitation was softly uttered. Susan hesitated. A little voice inside her head seemed to say:
Go back to the house straightway
, but something else, something as strong and dark as the night around her, urged her to follow. She clutched the amulet at her breast, her heart racing. Walking softly as in a dream, she followed Ursula.
Susan retrieved the pots the next morning. Her mistress, who had wanted to ease herself during the night and had found no receptacle for that purpose, threatened to beat her black and blue if she did not fetch them.
OCTOBER OF THE SAME YEAR
Matthew Stock looked out his shop door and had one foot on the cobblestoned street when he saw the hangman bearing down on him like a galleon under full sail making for port.
“Good morning, Constable Stock!” the hangman cried in very good humor.
Matthew returned the greeting, closed the shop door behind him, and shook the hangman’s hand. The hangman screwed up his eyes to peer at the sun. “We’re well met,” he said in the same jovial tone of his greeting. “Since our destination is the same. Both late too, if heaven’s clock tells truly.”
The two men threaded their way down the busy street, Matthew lengthening his stride to keep pace with his companion. As they went, Matthew glimpsed in the little square panes of shopwindow glass the many reflections of himself.
They made an odd pair for a morning’s walk, the hangman and the constable. Matthew was somewhat below the mean in height, stoutish—of unprepossessing figure if the truth be told. He wore a heavy fur-faced gown of the sort successful merchants wear, and a flat velvet cap pulled down to a point just above the brow and covering almost completely his thick black hair. Beneath the cap was his earnest, well-meaning face, forty years in the making, dark like a gypsy’s, smooth-shaven and intelligently affable. Little lines around his eyes
and a determined set to his small mouth gave his countenance additional character.
The hangman, on the other hand, was a veritable giant—a good six feet or more if he was an inch. Sims by name, he had broad, muscular shoulders, a tree trunk of a chest, and sturdy thighs and calves taut with energy. He wore a leather jerkin without sleeves and russet hose, and he had a wide freckled face and huge hands downed with curly hair of the same burnished gold hue as that which crowned his head in rich profusion. Astride, bent on his mission and happy for it, he was an intimidating presence who looked more like a forester or a blacksmith than a barber, which is what he was when he wasn’t making a few shillings extra by lopping off the bodily parts of malefactors or stringing them up on the gallows tree for their own good and the entertainment of the town. Tucked beneath his brawny arm was the black hood he wore when he engaged in official duties. A grin of cheerful anticipation lighted his freckled face.
“Marvelous fair morning for a hanging, eh, Constable?” remarked Sims as the two men maneuvered around a farmer’s wagon lumbering up the street and then stopped suddenly to avoid collision with a pedlar carrying a long staff and his gear piled high upon his back.
When they continued on their way, Matthew agreed with Sims’s comment. It was market day in Chelmsford. High Street was full to overflowing with citizens and countrymen come to buy, sell, or just gawk at those who did, and it was fine weather too—a late-October morn with a sky as bright and blue as a robin’s egg, not a wisp of a cloud, and the pleasant smoky wood-fire scent of autumn in the air. It was a marvelous fair day indeed. For some.