Authors: Paul Doherty
‘These figs in their almond sauce?’ Cranston asked.
‘A true delicacy.’ Garman replied quietly. ‘Sir Walter, when he served in Outremer, could not resist them. I bought them as a reminder, a comfort.’
‘Did he eat them?’ Athelstan interjected. ‘Sir Walter, I understand, had a delicate stomach?’
‘I brought them.’ Garman shrugged. ‘I left them. What happened to them afterwards I cannot say.’
‘Sir Henry?’ Cranston turned to the merchant knight. He pulled a face and gestured at Buckholt.
‘They disappeared,’ the steward declared. ‘I never saw them. Sir Walter may have eaten them. He certainly was particular to that delicacy. He may have given them away. Or,’ he smiled thinly, ‘they too may have been thrown down the garderobe.’
‘Apart from the past and his love for figs in an almond sauce,’ Athelstan nodded at Garman, ‘was there any other reason for your visit to Sir Walter?’
‘Of course there was, Brother,’ Lady Anne retorted, ‘I visited Sir Walter to beg for alms for my good causes. Parson Garman did the same.’
‘I seek aid from many people,’ the prison chaplain declared.
‘And was Sir Walter generous?’
‘Sometimes, like all wealthy men, shrewdness was more important than charity.’ Garman half smiled at the hiss from Sir Henry.
‘And the pewter goblets,’ Athelstan asked Falke, ‘the one Vanner bought and the other found at the bottom of the garderobe? What was Isolda’s response?’
‘She had no knowledge about any of that,’ Falke replied. ‘She only used the one brought by Buckholt. She maintained that the goblet found in the garderobe might have been accidently dropped there by Sir Walter himself.’ Falke ignored Buckholt’s sharp laugh. ‘Sir Walter did like his posset. It wasn’t unknown for him to carry a goblet into the garderobe to sip as he eased himself.’
‘And the goblet Vanner bought?’
‘Lady Isolda maintained he probably did it on Sir Walter’s order,’ Falke answered. ‘That would be logical. A goblet was lost and its owner asked his clerk to replace it.’
‘Nonsense!’ Buckholt sneered. ‘Firstly, why did Vanner buy twelve and get rid of the other eleven? I wager they lie somewhere in the gardens of Firecrest Manor, probably at the bottom of the mere. Sutler made the same point in court.’
‘And secondly?’ Athelstan asked.
‘Again,’ Buckholt retorted, ‘I pointed out in court that the purchase of cups, goblets and platters was not Vanner’s responsibility but either mine or the buttery clerk, Mortice.’
Falke shrugged and lapsed into silence.
‘And what else can be said in Lady Isolda’s defence?’ Athelstan asked.
‘She was innocent.’ Garman, hands down on the tabletop, head bowed as if praying, abruptly sat up. ‘I shrived her. I cannot say what Isolda actually confessed but she loved her husband, yes?’ No one gainsaid him. ‘No acrimony or argument before his mysterious death, yes? Sir Henry, you were his brother. I speak the truth?’
‘Yes, yes, you do.’ Sir Henry blinked. ‘Sir John, Brother Athelstan, we were not truly part of this. The Lady Isolda was gracious enough. True.’ He half smiled. ‘There appeared to be no hostility between herself and my late brother. Yet I sensed an unhappiness, perhaps a disappointment.’ He shrugged. ‘But that’s common enough in a May–December marriage.’
‘You talk of unhappiness?’
‘Brother, that is just suspicion. I don’t have a shred of proof.’
‘And now you are Sir Walter’s heir?’
‘Yes, I am. My brother died without begetting a child and,’ Sir Henry waved a hand, ‘Lady Isolda has gone to God.’
‘I believe they were happy enough.’ Garman was determined in his defence. ‘Lady Isolda declared herself innocent. I prayed with her, as did you, Lady Anne. She was particularly devoted to St Joachim, the father of the Virgin Mary.’
‘Yes, yes, she was.’ Lady Anne sighed. ‘I visited her very day. Well, at least until just before the end. Sir Jack, Brother Athelstan,’ she beat her fingers against the tabletop, ‘I am a widow, childless.’ She glanced over her shoulder at Turgot standing like a shadow close behind her. ‘Except for Turgot here, an orphan, a foundling, the son I never had,’ she turned back, smiling, ‘a graduate of the chapel school at Westminster no less, a true scholar, Brother Athelstan. Now,’ her smile faded, ‘my husband died a most wealthy man.’ Again she glanced over her shoulder at Turgot. ‘I have my household and my work. I am the Abbess of St Dismas, a lay organization, men and women like myself, who visit our filthy prisons,’ her voice turned harsh, ‘at the Fleet, Marshalsea and Newgate, even that pit of Hell, the Bocardo in Southwark. Now, as regards this matter. I felt a double duty towards Lady Isolda.’
‘Why?’ Athelstan asked.
‘First, she was a noble woman …’
‘Of noble birth?’ Cranston asked.
‘I am coming to that, Jack.’ She smiled faintly. ‘Isolda was a noble woman, condemned to a gruesome death. Execution by burning is truly horrific. However, let me return to the beginning. As some of you know, I was instrumental in Isolda meeting Sir Walter.’ She sipped delicately at her wine and pinched Cranston’s hand playfully. ‘Jack, don’t go to sleep on me! Now,’ she continued, ‘the abbey of St Mary and St Francis just south of St Botolph’s houses Franciscan nuns commonly called the Minoresses. One of their great services is that they take in foundlings, baby girls either abandoned by their mothers, Lord save them, or handed over to the good sisters,’ she shrugged, ‘to avoid scandal. God’s work.’ She paused. ‘Many a girl child is saved from a miscarriage, planned or otherwise. Isolda was one of these, a mere babe in arms, or so I understand, when she was left in the manger before the statue of the Virgin just outside the nunnery. The Minoresses provide an excellent school. Isolda attended it, following the rule of a novice. As for me, I am also a member of the Guild of St Martha. I and other ladies of noble birth take these young women under our wing. Isolda was one such: a maiden learned, schooled, of courtly manner and good repute.’ She smiled sadly. ‘Isolda, as many of you know, was truly beautiful. Now, the Guild would invite these young novices, suitably attired, to attend
– festivities and banquets, particularly at Westminster. Our set purpose was to introduce these young ladies to bachelors of good name and standing. In such company, supervised by the Guild, only men with honest intentions and of the proper status can approach our young ladies. Sir Walter was taken with Isolda and, to cut a long story short, love ran its course. They became betrothed, hand-fast at the door of St Michael and All Angels. That was five years ago. I thought all things were well until her arrest, and I walked into that cell at Newgate.’
‘You talked to her?’ Athelstan asked.
‘We talked, we prayed. Sometimes I would take needlecraft with me and encourage her to help.’
‘Did she talk about her crime?’
‘No, Brother, we are very strict on that. We are there to pray, comfort and offer spiritual guidance,’ Lady Anne fluttered her long, white bejewelled fingers, ‘and, to be honest, to distract. I brought her news from the city, of the fighting in the Narrow Seas. Understandably,’ Lady Anne sighed, ‘our rules were broken. Isolda hotly protested her innocence. I tried to lead her back to some other matter, then,’ she nodded at Garman, ‘it happened.’
‘Father?’ Cranston asked.
‘Two days before her execution,’ the chaplain declared, ‘I came to visit Lady Isolda. Due to her wealth and status she was able to rent a prison chamber.’ He paused, wrinkling his nose. Athelstan sensed the chaplain was trying to hide his contempt for the rich; just the tone of his voice, the flick of his eyes, that slight thrill to his face and voice. He was a secretive man, Athelstan concluded, who hid his feelings well. The friar recalled gossip he had heard in his own parish – how Garman had close ties with the Upright Men and the Great Community of the Realm.
‘Anyway,’ the chaplain ran a finger around the rim of his goblet, ‘I heard Isolda screaming. When the turnkey admitted me, I found Lady Anne huddled close to the door.’
‘Very frightened, I admit.’
‘And the cause of this quarrel?’ Athelstan asked.
‘Once again, Isolda tried to protest her innocence. She realized there would be no pardon, that she faced a horrid death. I made the mistake of telling her that I understood but of course I didn’t. Isolda grew very angry, screaming that I understood nothing. That I was to blame for her meeting Sir Walter. That she would not have married him if were not for me.’ Lady Anne dabbed at her eyes. Behind her Turgot grew restless and moved forward but she glanced over her shoulder and he stepped back. ‘I left her a set of Ave beads. I understand she threw them away.’
‘That reminds me.’ Garman pushed back his chair, opened his wallet and handed Lady Anne an Ave ring, but the chain was snapped and most of the beads missing. ‘I picked this up from the floor after you left.’ He handed it over.
‘That was the last time I saw Isolda,’ Lady Anne whispered. ‘I didn’t attend her death. I couldn’t.’
‘Who visited her in the condemned cell?’ Cranston asked.
‘I’m afraid only three people,’ Garman replied, ‘Master Falke, Lady Anne and me.’
‘We did not think it was appropriate,’ Lord Henry spoke up. ‘None of the household wanted to. Rosamund was still ill.’
‘And who attended her execution?’ Athelstan asked.
Garman slightly raised his hand. ‘It is my duty,’ he murmured, ‘one of the most hateful parts. I sat in the execution cart opposite her reciting the Dirige psalms.’
‘Brother, it was if all life had been crushed in her. She just sat listless.’
‘Had she received any potion?’
‘No.’ Garman shook his head. ‘Keeper Tweng was under strict orders from the Regent on the day before her execution – anything she ate or drank had to be tested. I recall doing so myself on more than one occasion. Isolda, understandably, had little appetite for food or drink.’
‘And at Smithfield?’ Athelstan asked, aware of the silence. Everyone in this chamber recognized the sheer blasphemy of a public burning: the screams, the stench, the noise of the crowd and all the gruesome paraphernalia which festooned such a death.
‘Isolda was carried in dead-faint to the execution stake.’ Garman’s voice was hardly above a whisper. ‘She was bound to the pillar. The Carnifex fired the straw and the smoke plumed up.’
‘And the Carnifex showed her no mercy?’
‘None,’ Garman agreed. ‘He was forbidden to go through the smoke to deliver a swift death.’ Garman crossed himself. ‘Isolda was very beautiful. Such a soul could not be capable of murder. She confessed her innocence to me and I believed her.’
‘And your mistress?’ Athelstan smiled at Rosamund, who turned in her chair, doe eyes blinking furiously.
She gestured at Lady Rohesia. ‘On the same day that Lady Isolda allegedly murdered her husband, I was discommoded, confined to my chamber with a severe bout of the sweating sickness. Ask anyone …’
‘That’s true,’ Buckholt declared kindly. ‘The poor girl became as wet as anything, the sweat fair shimmering on her.’
‘Did you believe in your mistress’ innocence?’ Athelstan persisted.
‘Father, I …’ she stammered, ‘I was surprised, shocked. I was ill. I couldn’t visit her in prison.’
‘Poor girl,’ Lady Anne intervened. ‘It was I who visited her. She was only strong enough for a walk in the garden.’
‘Continue.’ Athelstan turned back to Rosamund.
‘Brother, what happened to my master and mistress was tragic. All I could recall were the warnings.’
‘What warnings!’ Athelstan and Cranston spoke together.
‘About a year ago,’ Sir Henry replied, ‘yes, Buckholt?’
The steward nodded.
‘Sir Walter received messages, scraps of parchment thrust into the hands of servants entering the manor or left outside the porter’s lodge.’
‘At least six.’
‘And the message?’
‘“As I and ours did burn,”’ Sir Henry replied, ‘“so shall ye and yours.” The writing was scrawled, the parchment dirty and wrinkled.’
‘Who would threaten Sir Walter like that and why?’ Cranston asked.
‘Sir John, my brother, did not know, and neither did I. The messages stopped as abruptly as they began.’
‘And “The Book of Fires” by Mark the Greek?’ Athelstan stared across at Lady Anne, now lost in her own sad thoughts.
‘“The Book of Fires,”’ Sir Henry’s voice fell to a whisper, ‘is a great secret. They say it is passed on from one Emperor of Constantinople to another …’
‘I know its history,’ Athelstan interjected, ‘as I know your brother owned a copy. It’s now gone, so where was it kept?’
‘In a bound leather casket in his bedchamber, the key always around his neck, or so we were led to believe.’ Sir Henry rubbed his face. ‘On the morning Walter was found dead, the key was still there and the casket locked. However, when I opened it, the book was gone. Who stole it, how and when?’ Sir Henry shook his head. ‘No one knows.’
‘What did it look like?’
‘I saw it many years ago, just after my brother returned from Outremer. Small yet thick, tightly bound in an embossed calf-skin cover. Only my brother knew its contents.’
Athelstan stared around the chamber. This is a desert of emotions, he thought. Lady Isolda is gone and everyone seems to want to bury her memory deep. It was understandable: Sir Henry and his wife were prosperous merchants. Falke had lost his case and could do nothing. Buckholt had been vindicated. Parson Garman and Lady Anne had performed their duties as diligently as they could. Rosamund seemed lost in her own world. Nevertheless, Isolda’s execution had left a devastating legacy.
‘The Ignifer!’ Athelstan exclaimed. ‘The assassin who has murdered three people and who could kill and kill again.’
The assembled guests moved in their seats, hands going out to their goblets or the sweetmeats, anything to distract their nervousness.
‘Sir John, Brother Athelstan,’ Falke declared, ‘we sit here and talk about Lady Isolda but Reginald Vanner should be your real quarry.’ The lawyer, face all determined, leaned forward, ticking the points off on his fingers. ‘Firstly, Vanner could have been involved in Sir Walter’s murder. Secondly, Vanner was Sir Walter’s clerk. He had access to “The Book of Fires”. Thirdly, he must know something about Greek fire. Fourthly, he has disappeared. Fifthly, he has a motive. He is now a proclaimed outlaw, a wolfshead to be killed on sight. Consequently he has nothing to lose in waging war against those who were responsible for the death of a woman who might have been his lover.’