Susanna Gregory

Historical crime fiction. Medieval murder mysteries.
    Restoration intrigue and treachery.

A Poisonous Plot

A Poisonous PlotThe Twenty-First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew

The foundations of Bartholomew’s life in Cambridge seem ready to tumble, as a series of deaths – or are they murders? – threatens even his relationship with his beloved sister.

In 1358, the college of Michaelhouse is facing a serious shortfall of funds and competition from rival upstarts such as Zachary Hostel. The problems are made no easier by the hostility of the town’s inhabitants, who want the University to leave the town completely and resettle in the Fens.

This simmering tension threatens to break into violence when a well-known brewer is found dead in one of the colleges. Physician Matthew Bartholomew knows he was poisoned but cannot identify the actual substance, never mind the killer. He also suspects that other illnesses and deaths may have been caused by the effluent from his sister’s dyeworks, but his reputation as a diagnostician is threatened by the arrival of a fashionable new medicus.

Torn between loyalties to his kin and to his college, he fears the truth may destroy both his personal and professional lives, and he knows he has very little time in which to get to the heart of the matter before many more people – townsmen and scholars – lose their lives.

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Extract

Cambridge, October 1358

Bartholomew darted towards the bodies, sensing he would not have much time before the Franciscan declared himself suitable fortified and returned to his duties.

It was an unpleasant business, not only rushed and fraught with the fear that Kellawe might decide his devotions were more important than listening to Wauter burble about his Martilogium, but because of what he was obliged to do for answers: when an external examination of Lenne revealed nothing amiss, Bartholomew embarked on a more invasive one using knives and forceps. What he discovered prompted him to look inside Irby, Yerland and Segeforde as well.

‘Keep your sucura to hand,’ Cynric whispered, glancing down as he passed by on one of his prowls, although his eyes did not linger on the body for long. ‘Irby’s spirit will not like you doing that to its mortal coil, so you will need the powder’s protection for sure.’

The remark unsettled Bartholomew even more. He had no idea why, when he had long been of the belief that much could be learned from the dead and that anatomy was a valuable tool for helping the living, but it was a feeling he could not shake. He finished quickly, put all to rights, and left the church with relief. It was not long before Michael, Cynric and Wauter joined him in the graveyard, the latter pale and agitated.

‘Kellawe has some very nasty opinions,’ the Austin said, indicating that Cynric should lead the way home. ‘He will have the entire town in flames before long. Perhaps that alone is a reason for moving to the Fens – to spare the town from his vitriol.’

By the time they returned to the College, it was almost too late to go to bed. Bartholomew tried to sleep anyway, and passed two very restless hours before the bell rang to wake everyone for church. It was his turn to assist at the altar, and a cold chill ran down his spine when Clippesby passed him the Host and the candles guttered. The rational part of his mind reminded him that it happened all the time – St Michael’s was full of unaccountable draughts – but it did make him wonder again whether people were right to object to dissection.

‘Tell me again what you discovered,’ instructed Michael, when they were back in the hall, eating a plentiful but slightly peculiar breakfast of barley bread, carrots and nuts.

‘Inflammation of the stomach membranes and damaged livers,’ replied Bartholomew tersely. ‘On all four bodies.’

‘Meaning what exactly?’

‘Meaning that something is wrong, but I cannot tell you what.’

‘But it might indicate that they were poisoned?’

‘It might. All had been ill, but with different ailments: Lenne had lung-rot, Irby complained of loss of appetite, Yerland had head pains and Segeforde had some undefined malaise – the debilitas, for want of a better diagnosis.’

‘I can accept Lenne dying of natural causes, but not the other three. I think Nigellus killed them – and the logical extension of that is that he poisoned Letia, Arnold and the folk from Barnwell, too.’

‘And Frenge,’ added Bartholomew. ‘Perhaps in revenge for selling sour ale to Zachary.’

‘Quite,’ said Michael grimly. ‘So I rose before dawn and arrested him. His colleagues are furious, of course, and so is he. He thinks you put me up to it.’

Bartholomew groaned. ‘If he is innocent, he will never forgive me.’

‘He is not innocent, and I wish to God I had acted the moment we found Irby’s note. If I had, Yerland and Segeforde would still be alive. Similia similibus curantur – “like cures like”. Irby knew he had been poisoned, but was too frightened to tell his colleagues, so he wrote to you instead – a subtle yet clear plea for you to find an antidote.’

Bartholomew regarded him askance. ‘Is that what you think it means?’

‘I am sure of it, and I am only sorry that I did not understand it sooner. Twelve of his patients are dead – thirteen, if you count Frenge – while Trinity Hall has suffered two serious bouts of sickness. And do not say bad cream was responsible for the these – Nigellus did it, of that I am certain. This is what happens when medici think they are God, with the power to kill or cure.’