Authors: Ellis Peters
Tags: #Herbalists, #Cadfael; Brother (Fictitious Character), #Stephen; 1135-1154, #Mystery & Detective, #Monks, #General, #Shrewsbury (England), #Great Britain, #Historical, #Traditional British, #Large type books, #Fiction, #History
“Then have you seen your man Bertred at all since last night? He lives in your household, I’m told.”
“He does,” agreed Miles, frowning. “No, I’ve not seen him today, with the looms quiet there’s no reason I should. He eats in the kitchen. I suppose he’s out again on the hunt, though God knows we’ve knocked on every door and probed round every yard in the town, and not a housewife or goodman who hasn’t been alerted to watch for any sign and listen for any word that could lead us to her. Yet what can we do but search and ask all over again? They’re out on all the roads and asking at the hamlets for a mile round, now, as you best know, my lord. Bertred will be out raking the countryside with them, no question. He’s been tireless for her, that I grant him.”
“And his mother—she’s in no anxiety about him? Nothing has been said of things he may have had on his mind? She has not spoken of him to you?”
“No!” Miles was again looking bewilderedly from face to face. “You’ll hardly find a soul in our house who is not anxious, and they show it, but I’ve noticed nothing amiss with her more than with all the rest of us. Why? What is this, my lord? Do you know something of Bertred that I do not know? Not guilt! Impossible! He’s run himself raw scouring the town for my cousin… a decent man… You cannot have taken him in any wickedness…?”
It was a reasonable supposition, when the lord sheriff began asking such close questions about any man. Hugh put him out of his defensive agitation, but without over-haste.
“I know no wrong of your man, no. He is the victim of harm, not the cause. This is bad news we have for you, Master Coliar.” Its purport was already implicit in his tone, but he put it into words bleak and blunt enough. “An hour ago the brothers working on the Gaye plucked Bertred out of the river and brought him here, dead. Drowned.”
In the profound silence that followed Miles stood motionless, until finally he stirred and moistened his lips.
“Where is he?”
“Laid decently in the mortuary chapel here,” said the abbot. “The lord sheriff will take you to him.”
In the dim chapel Miles stared down at the known face now so strangely unfamiliar, and shook his head repeatedly and vigorously, as though he could shake away, if not the fact of death, his own shock at its suddenness. He had recovered his down-to-earth calmness and acceptance. One of his weavers was dead, the task of getting him out of here and into his grave with proper rites fell to Miles as his master. What was due from him he would do.
“How could this be?” he said. “Yesterday he came late in the evening for his meal, but there was nothing in that, all day he’d been out abroad with your men, my lord. He went to his bed soon after. He said good night to me, it must have been about the hour of Compline. The house was already quiet, but some of us were still up. I never saw him again.”
“So you don’t know whether he went out again by night?”
Miles looked up sharply, the blue of his eyes at their widest startlingly bright. “It seems that he must have done. But in God’s name, why should he? He was tired out after a long day. I know no reason why he should have stirred again till morning. You said it was but an hour since you took him out of the Severn…”
“I took him out,” said Cadfael, unobtrusive in a dark corner of the chapel. “But he had been there more hours than one. In my judgement, since the small hours of the morning. It is not easy to say how long.”
“And, look, his brow is broken!” The wide, low forehead was dry now, but for the damp fringe of hair. The skin had shrunk apart, leaving the moist wound bared. “Are you sure, Brother, that he drowned?”
“Quite sure. How he came by that knock there’s no knowing, but he surely had it before he went into the water. You can’t tell us anything that may help us, then?”
“I wish I could,” said Miles earnestly. “I’ve seen no change in him, he’s said nothing to me that could shed any light. This comes out of the dark to me. I cannot account for it.” He looked doubtfully at Hugh across the body. “May I take him home? I’ll need to speak with his mother first, but she’ll want him home.”
“Naturally,” agreed Hugh resignedly. “Yes, you may fetch him away when you will. Do you need help with the means?”
“No, my lord, we’ll do all ourselves. I’ll bring down a handcart and decent covering. And I do thank you and this house for the care you’ve had of him.”
He came again about an hour later, looking strained from the ordeal of breaking bad news to a widow now childless. Two of his men from the looms followed him with a simple, high-sided handcart used for wheeling goods, and waited mute and sombre in the great court until Brother Cadfael came to lead them to the mortuary chapel. Between them they carried Bertred’s body out into the early evening light, and laid him on a spread brychan in the cart, and covered him tidily from view. They were still about it when Miles turned to Cadfael, and asked simply: “And his clothes? She should have back with him all that was his. Small comfort for a woman, but she’ll want them. And she’ll need what they’ll fetch, too, poor soul, though I’ll see she’s taken care of still, and so will Judith… when she’s found. If…” His mind seemed to be drifting back into expectations of the worst, and fiercely rejecting them.
“I had forgot,” Cadfael owned, never having handled the clothes stripped from Bertred’s body. “Wait, I’ll bring them.”
The forlorn little bundle of clothes laid aside in the chapel had been folded together as tidily as haste and their sodden condition permitted, and had drained gradually where they lay. The folds of coat and shirt and homespun hose were beginning to dry. Cadfael took the pile in one arm, and picked up in the other hand the boots that stood beside it. He carried them out into the court as Miles was smoothing the blanket neatly over Bertred’s feet. The young man turned to meet him and take the bundle from him, and in the exchange, as Miles leaned to stow the clothes under the blanket, the cart tilted, and the boots, just balanced at the tail, fell to the cobbled paving.
Cadfael stooped to pick them up and restore them to their place. It was the first time he had really looked at them, and the light here in the court was clear and bright. He stood arrested in mid-movement, a boot in either hand, and slowly he turned up the left one to look attentively at the sole. For so long a time that when he did look up he found Miles standing just as still in wonder, gazing at him with open mouth, his head on one side like a puzzled hound on a lost scent.
“I think,” said Cadfael with deliberation, “I had better get leave from the lord abbot, and come up into the town with you. I need to speak once again with the lord sheriff.”
It was but a short walk from the castle to the house at Maerdol-head, and the boy sent in haste to find Hugh brought him within the quarter-hour, cursing mildly at being side-tracked on the point of further action he had intended, but reconciled by sharp curiosity, for Cadfael would not have sent for him again so soon without good reason.
In the hall Dame Agatha, attended by a tearful Branwen, volubly lamented the rockfall of disasters which had befallen the Vestier household. In the kitchen the bereaved Alison mourned with more bitter reason the loss of her son, while all the spinning-girls formed a chorus to her threnody. But in the loom-shed, where Bertred’s body had been laid out decorously on a trestle table to await the visit of Martin Bellecote, the master-carpenter from the Wyle, it was quiet to the point of oppression, even though there were three of them there conversing in low voices and few words.
“There is no shadow of doubt,” said Cadfael, holding the boot sole up to the light of a small lamp one of the girls had set at the head of the table. The light outside was still hardly less bright than in the afternoon, but half the shed was shuttered because the looms were at rest. “This is the boot that made the print I took from the soil under Niall’s vine, and the man who wore it is the man who tried to hack down the rosebush, the same who also killed Brother Eluric. I made the mould, I know I am not mistaken. But here is the mould itself, for I brought it with me. You will find it matches exactly.”
“I take your word for it,” said Hugh. But as one who must verify for himself every morsel of evidence, he took the boot and the waxen mould, and carried them out to the doorway to match the two together. “There is no doubt.” The two fitted like seal and matrix. There was the oblique tread that had worn down outer heel and inner toe, and the crack reaching half across the sole at the ball of the foot. “It seems,” said Hugh, “the Severn has saved us the cost of a trial, and him a worse fate than drowning.”
Miles had remained standing somewhat apart, looking from face to face with the same baffled wonder with which he had brooded over Bertred’s body in the mortuary chapel.
“I don’t understand,” he said dubiously at last. “Are you saying that it was Bertred who got into the smith’s garden to spoil Judith’s rosebush? And killed…” The same vigorous, even violent, shaking of his head, trying to toss the unwelcome belief from him, like a bull trying to throw off a dog that had him by the soft nose. And with as little success, for slowly the conviction began to penetrate his mind, to judge by the slackening of the lines of his face, and his final resigned calm and glint of rising interest. A very eloquent face, had Miles; Cadfael could follow every change. “Why should he do such a thing?” he said slowly, but rather as if his own wit was already beginning to supply answers.
“The killing he never meant, as like as not,” said Hugh reasonably. “But as for hacking down the bush—it was you yourself gave us a good reason why a man might do so.”
“But what did it benefit Bertred? All it would have done was to prevent my cousin getting her rent paid. What was that to him? He had no rights in it.” But there Miles halted to reflect again. “I don’t know—it seems reaching far. I know I said he fancied he had some small chance with her. He did presume, sometimes, he had a good conceit of himself. He may even have believed he might win her favour, such things have been known. Well… there’s no denying, if he had such vaulting ideas, the Foregate house was a good half of her property, worth a man’s while trying to regain.”
“As all her suitors may have reasoned,” said Hugh, “not merely Bertred. He slept in here?”
“And therefore could go in and out at will, by night or day, without disturbing any other creature.”
“Well, so he could. It seems so he did, last night, for none of us within heard a sound.”
“But granted we have the proof now that links him to the death of Brother Eluric,” said Hugh, frowning, “we are still floundering when it comes to the vanishing of Mistress Perle. There’s nothing whatever to connect him with that, and we have still a second malefactor to find. Bertred has been among the most assiduous of our helpers in the search for her. I don’t think he would have spent quite so much energy if he had had any knowledge of where she was, however desirable it might be to make a show of zeal.”
“My lord,” said Miles slowly, “I never would have believed such devious work of Bertred, but now you have shown me so far into his guilt I cannot help following further. It’s a strange thing, his own mother has been pouring out to us all, since we brought him home, what he said to her last night. You may ask her yourself, my lord, she will surely repeat it to you as she has to us. I would rather not be the bearer, nor risk being suspect of mangling the purport. If it means anything, let her deliver it, not I.”
The widow, bloated with tears and surrounded by her would-be comforters, was indeed still spouting words between her bouts of weeping, and had no objection to continuing her threnody for the benefit of the sheriff, when he drove her companions away for a short while, to have the bereaved woman to himself.
“A good son he was always to me, a good worker to his mistress, and deserved well of her, and well she thought of him. But great notions he had, like his father before him, and where have they got him now? How would I like, says he to me last night, how would I like to be better than a servant in this house—a gentlewoman, fit for the hall instead of the kitchen? ‘Only wait a day or so’, says he, ‘and you’ll see, I mean to make your fortune and my own’. ‘There’s not one’, he says, ‘knows what I know’. If there’s ought you know to the purpose, I said, why haven’t you told? But would he? ‘And spend the credit along with my breath?’ he says. ‘No, you leave all to me’.”
“And did he say anything about what he intended in the night?” asked Hugh, slipping his question quietly and unobtrusively into the first chink in her outpourings, while she drew breath.
“He said he must go out again when it was full dark, but he wouldn’t tell me where, or why, nor what he was about at all. ‘Wait till tomorrow’, he says, ‘and not a word to any tonight’. But what does it matter now? Speak or keep silent, it does him no good now. Don’t you go running your head into trouble, I told him. There may be more than you out about risky business in the night.”
Her flow of words was by no means exhausted, but its matter became repetitive, for she had told everything she knew. They left her to the ministrations of the women and the diminishing bitterness of her grief as it drained away into exhaustion. The house of Vestier, Miles assured them earnestly as they left the premises, would not let any of its old servants go short of the means of a decent life. Alison was safe enough.
COME WITH ME,” said Hugh, setting off briskly up the hill towards the high cross, and turning his back with some relief on the troubled household at the clothiers’ shop. “Since you have honest leave to be out, you may as well join me on the errand you delayed for me a while ago. I was all but out of the town gate when your messenger came and Will came running after me to say I was wanted at the Vestiers’. I sent him on ahead with a couple of men, he’s down there and at it by now, but I’d as lief see to it for myself.”
“Where are we going?” asked Cadfael, falling in willingly beside his friend up the steep street.
“To talk to Fuller’s watchman. That’s the one place outside the town walls where there’d be a waking witness even in the night, and a watchdog to alert him if anyone came prowling close by. If the fellow did by any chance go into the water this side the river, works and warehouse are only a little way upstream from where you found him. Fuller’s man has both places in charge. He may have heard something. And as we go, tell me what you make of all that—Bertred’s night affairs, and the fortune he was going to make.”
“By reason of knowing something no one else knew—hmm! For that matter, I noticed he stayed behind when your men left the jetty yesterday afternoon. He let you all go on well before, and then slipped back alone into the trees. And he came late for his supper, told his mother she should be a gentlewoman in the house instead of a cook, and went off again in the night to set about making his word good. And according to Miles he not only fancied his mistress, but had the assurance to feel there was no reason he should not bring her to fancy him.”
“And how persuade her?” asked Hugh, wryly smiling. “By abduction and force? Or by a gallant rescue?”
“Or both,” said Cadfael.
“Now truly you interest me! Those who hide can find! If by any chance the lady is where he put her, but doesn’t know who put her there—for a Bertred can as easily find rogues to do his work for him as any wealthier man, it is but a matter of degrees of greed!—then who could better come to her rescue? Even if gratitude did not go so far as to make her marry him, he certainly would not be the loser.”
“It offers one way of accounting,” Cadfael acknowledged. “And in its favour, the maid Branwen blabbed out what her mistress intended in the kitchen, so we are told. And Bertred ate in the kitchen, and was probably there to hear it. The kitchen knew of it, the hall knew nothing until next day, after she was lost. But there are other possibilities. That someone else took her, and Bertred had found out where she was. And said no word to you or your men, but kept the rescue for himself. It seems a simpler and a smaller villainy, for one surely not so subtle as to make tortuous plans.”
“You forget,” Hugh pointed out grimly, “that by all the signs he had already committed murder, whether with intent beforehand or not, still murder. He might be forced into plans far beyond his ordinary scope after that, to cover his tracks and secure at least some of his desired gains.”
“I forget nothing,” said Cadfael sturdily. “One point in favour of your story I’ve given you. Here is one against: If he had her hidden away somewhere, securely enough to baffle all your efforts to find her, why should it not be a safe and simple matter for him to effect that rescue of his without a single stumble? And the man is dead! Far more likely to come to grief in spite of all his planning, if he crossed the plans of some other man.”
“True again! Though for all we yet know, his death could have been pure mischance. True, it could be either way. If he is the abductor as well as the murderer, then we have no second villain to find, but alas, we still lack the lady, and the only man who could lead us to her is dead. If murderer and abductor are two different people, then we have still to find both the captor and his captive. And since it seems the most likely object of taking her is to inveigle her into marriage, we may hope and believe both that she is living, and that in the end he must release her. Though I own I’d rather forestall that by plucking her out of his hold myself.”
They were over the crest by the high cross, and striding downhill now, past the ramp that led up to the castle gatehouse, and still downhill alongside the towering walls, until town wall on their left and castle wall on their right met in a low tower, under which the highway passed. Once through that gateway, the level of the road opened before them, fringed for only a short way by small houses and gardens. Hugh turned right on the outer side of the deep, dry castle ditch, before the houses began, and started down towards the riverside, and Cadfael followed more sedately.
Godfrey Fuller’s tenterground stood empty, the drying cloth just unhooked and rolled up for finishing. Most of his men had already stopped work for the day, and the last few had lingered to watch and listen at the arrival of the sheriff’s men, before making for their homes in the town. A close little knot of men had gathered at the edge of the tenterground, between dye-works and wool warehouse: Godfrey Fuller himself, his finery shed in favour of stout working clothes, for he was by no means ashamed to soil his hands alongside his workmen, and prided himself on being able to do whatever he asked of them, and possibly as well or better than they could; the watchman, a thickset, burly fellow of fifty, with his mastiff on a leash; Hugh’s oldest sergeant, Will Warden, bushy-bearded and massive; and two men from the garrison in watchful attendance at a few yards distance. At sight of Hugh dropping with long strides down the slope of the meadow, Warden swung away from the colloquy to meet him.
“My lord, the watchman here says there was an alarm in the night, the dog gave tongue.”
The watchman spoke up freely for himself, aware of duty properly done. “My lord, some sneak thief was here in the night, well past midnight, climbing to the hatch behind Master Hynde’s storehouse. Not that I knew then that he’d got so far, but the hound here gave warning, and out we went, and heard him running for the river. I made to cut him off, but he was past me too fast, all I got was one clout at him as he rushed by. I hit him, but did him precious little harm, surely, by the speed he made down to the bank and into the water. I heard the splash as he went in, and called off the dog, and went to look had he got into the store. But there was no sign, not to be seen in the night, and I took it he was well across and off by then, no call to make any more stir about him. I never knew till now it was a dead man came ashore on the other side. That I never meant.”
“It was not your doing,” said Hugh. “The blow you got in did him no great damage. He drowned, trying to swim across.”
“But, my lord, there’s more! When I looked round the warehouse by daylight this morning, see what I found lying in the grass under the hatch. I’ve just handed them over to your sergeant here.” Will Warden had them in his hands, displayed in meaning silence, a long chisel and a small clawed hammer. “And the sill beam under the hatch broken from its nails at one end, and dangling. I reckon surely he was up there trying to break through the shutter and get in at the fleeces. A year ago when the clip was in there thieves got in and stole a couple of bales. Old William Hynde near went out of his wits with rage. Come and see, my lord.”
Cadfael followed slowly and thoughtfully as they set off round the bulk of the warehouse to the rear slope, where the shuttered hatch showed still securely fastened, though the stout beam under it hung vertically against the planks of the wall, the splintered gaps where it had broken free from its anchoring nails rotten and soft to the touch.
“Gave under his weight,” said the watchman, peering upward. “It was his fall the dog heard. And these tools came down with him, and he had no time to pick them up, if he’d delayed a moment we should have had him. But here’s good proof he was trying to break in and steal. And the best is,” said the watchman, shaking his head over the folly of the too-clever, “if he’d got in through the hatch he couldn’t have got at the fleeces.”
“No?” said Hugh sharply, turning a startled glance on him. “Why? What would have prevented?”
“There’s another locked door beyond, my lord, between him and what he came for. No, belike you wouldn’t know of it, why should you? William Hynde’s clerk used to work in the little back room up there, it was used as a counting-house until that time thieves broke in by this back way. By then the woolman was buying here for the foreign trade, and old Hynde thought better to bid him up to his own house and make much of him. And what with their business being all transacted there, the old counting-house was out of use. He had the door locked and barred, for an extra barrier against thieves. If this rogue had got in, it would have done him no good.”
Hugh gazed and pondered, and gnawed a dubious lip. “This rogue, my friend, was in the wool trade himself, and knew this place very well. He fetched the fleeces for the Vestiers from here, he’d been in and out more than once. How comes it that he would not know of this closed counting-house? And my deputy had them open up here two days ago, and saw the upper floor full almost to the ladder with bales. If there’s a door there, it was buried behind the wool.”
“So it would be, my lord. Why not? I doubt if a soul had gone through that door since it was first shut up. There’s nothing within there.”
Nothing now, Cadfael was thinking. But was there something—someone!—there only yesterday? It would seem that Bertred thought so, though of course Bertred could be wrong. He must have known of the abandoned room, he may well have thought it worth putting to the test at a venture, without special cause. If so, it cost him dear. All those dreams of bettering his fortune by a gallant rescue, of exploiting a woman’s gratitude to the limit and advancing his own cause step by step with insinuating care, all shattered, swept away down the currents of the Severn. Did he really know something no one else among the searchers knew, or was he speaking only of this hidden room as a possibility?
“Will,” said Hugh,”send a man up to Hynde’s house, and ask him, or his son, to come down here and bring the keys. All his keys! It’s time I took a look within here myself. I should have done it earlier.”
But it was neither William Hynde nor his son Vivian who came striding down the field with the sergeant after a wait of some ten or fifteen minutes. It was a serving-man in homespun and leather, a tall, bold-faced, muscular fellow in his thirties, sporting a close-trimmed beard that outlined a wide mouth and a jaunty jaw with all the dandified elegance of a Norman lordling, though his build was Saxon and his colouring reddish-fair. He made a careless obeisance to Hugh, and straightened up to measure eyes with him, ice-pale eyes with only the glittering Norse-tinge of blue in them.
“My lord, my mistress sends you these, and my services.” He had the keys in his hand on a great ring, a rich bunch of them. His voice was loud, with a brazen ring to it, though his manner was civil enough. “My master’s away at his sheepfolds by Forton, has been since yesterday, and the young master’s gone up there to help them today, but he’ll be back tomorrow if you need him. Will it please you command me? I’m here to serve.”
“I’ve seen you about the town,” said Hugh, eyeing him with detached interest. “So you’re in Hynde’s service, are you? What’s your name?”
“Gunnar, my lord.”
“And he trusts you with his keys. Well, Gunnar, open these doors for us. I want to see what’s within.” And he added, as the man turned willingly to obey: “When is the barge expected, if Master Hynde can spare time to go in person to his flocks?”
“Before the end of the month, my lord, but the merchant sends word ahead from Worcester. They take the clip by water to Bristol, and then overland to Southampton for shipping, it cuts off the long voyage round. A rough passage they say it is, all round the south-west.” He was busy as he talked, unfastening two massive padlocks from the bar of the warehouse doors, and drawing both leaves wide open to let in the light upon a clean-swept, slightly raised floor of boards, on which the lower-grade fleeces had been stacked. This level was empty now. From the left-hand corner within the door a wooden ladder led up through a wide, open trap to the floor above.
“You’re well informed concerning Master Hynde’s business affairs, Gunnar,” said Hugh mildly, stepping over the threshold.
“He trusts me. I made the journey down to Bristol with the barge once, when they had a man injured and were short-handed. Will it please you go up, sir? Shall I lead the way?”
A very self-assured and articulate person, this Gunnar, Cadfael reflected, the very image of the intelligent and trusted servant of a commercial house, capable of adapting to travel, and learning from every experience. By his stature, bearing and colouring he proclaimed his northern ancestry. The Danes had reached no further south than Brigge in this shire, but they had left a few of their getting behind when they retreated. Cadfael followed without haste as they mounted the ladder and stepped on to the upper floor. Here the light was dim, reflected up from the wide doors below, but enough to show the stacked bales stretching the full length of the storehouse.
“We could do with more light,” said Hugh.
“Wait, my lord, and I’ll open.” And Gunnar made no more ado, but seized one of the bales in the centre of the array and hauled it down to set aside, and after it several more, until the stout wooden planks of a narrow door were laid bare. He flourished his ring of keys with a flurry of sound, selected one, and thrust it into the lock. There were two iron bars slotted across the door in addition, and they grated rustily as he drew them from the sockets. The key creaked as it turned. “There’s been no use made of this for a while now,” said Gunnar cheerfully. “We’ll do no harm by letting in the air for once.”
The door opened inward. He thrust it wide and made straight across to the shuttered hatch, and with a lusty banging of latches and beams released the shutters and pushed them wide to let in the slanting sunlight. “Mind the dust, my lord,” he warned helpfully, and stood back to let them examine the whole narrow room. A rising breeze blew in, fluttering trailers of cobweb from the rough wood of the hatch.