Susanna Gregory

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

Death of a Scholar

The Twentieth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew

Death of a ScholarThe foundation of a new College threatens the very existence of the University, while Bartholomew and his family try to recover from their own devastating loss.

In the summer of 1358 the physician Matthew Bartholomew returns to Cambridge to learn that his beloved sister is in mourning after the unexpected death of her husband, Oswald Stanmore. Aware that his son had no interest in the cloth trade that made his fortune and reputation, Oswald had left the business to his widow, but a spate of burglaries in the town distracts Matthew from supporting Edith in her grief and attempting to keep the peace between her and her wayward son.

Meanwhile a new foundation, Winwick Hall, is causing consternation amongst Matthew’s colleagues in Michaelhouse. The founder is an impatient man determined that his name will grace the University’s most prestigious college. He has used his wealth to rush the construction of the hall, and his appointed Fellows are gaining support of Cambridge’s most influential citizens on Winwick’s behalf.

A perfect storm between the older establishments and the brash newcomers is brewing when the murder of a guildsman is soon followed by the death of one of Winwick’s senior Fellows. Assisting Brother Michael in investigating these fatalities leads Matthew into a web of suspicion, where the pressure from the problems of his college and his family sets him on a path that could endanger his own future …

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Extract

Cambridge, Lammas Day (1 August) 1358

Oswald Stanmore knew he was dying. He also knew it was time to push earthly concerns from his mind and concentrate on his immortal soul, but he could not bring himself to do it. At least, not yet. His beloved wife Edith sat at his bedside, and her good opinion was important to him – he did not want her to learn that not everything he had done during his long and very successful career as a clothier had been legal or ethical.

He had managed to destroy all evidence of his more serious transgressions – the reek of burned parchment still hung about him – but what about the rest? It had not been easy to be a merchant in such turbulent times. The interminable war with France, famine, plague, years of unpredictable weather – all had taken their toll on trade, and only the strongest had survived. Stanmore had done what was necessary to protect his family from the wretchedness of poverty.

He closed his eyes, aware that he was deluding himself, which was hardly wise at such a time. The truth was that he loved the darker side of commerce – outwitting competitors, avoiding the King’s taxes, driving a ruthless bargain. His willingness to bend the rules had given him an edge his rivals had lacked, and had made him one of the wealthiest businessmen in the shire. Edith knew nothing of it, of course, and the thought that she might find out when he was dead sent a pang of distress spearing through him. He groaned aloud.

‘Doctor Rougham will be here soon,’ said Edith, misunderstanding the cause of his anguish. Her bright smile reminded him that she had no idea of the gravity of his condition. ‘You have chosen a bad time for a fever, dearest. Matt is away.’

She referred to her brother, Matthew Bartholomew, considered by the family to be the town’s best physician. Rougham, on the other hand, was an indifferent practitioner, more interested in making money than in his patients’ welfare. Stanmore grimaced. He could hardly blame Rougham for that – a fondness for money was a failing he owned himself.

The door clanked, and Rougham entered the room. As befitting a man of his academic and social standing, he had spent a small fortune on his clothes. The material had come from the Stanmore warehouses, naturally, but there was a flaw in the weave that prevented the tabard from hanging as well as it might, and Stanmore was gripped by a sense of shame. He remembered that particular bolt, and should not have charged Rougham full price for it.

‘Marsh fever,’ announced Rougham, after the briefest of examinations. ‘It always strikes at this time of year. Indeed, I have only just recovered from a bout of it myself.’

Stanmore knew otherwise, but made no effort to say so. Why bother, when it would make no difference? Rougham and Edith began to discuss remedies and tonics, so he let his mind wander to what he had done that day.

He had spent most of it in his solar, frantically destroying records in the hope of sparing Edith worrisome discoveries – a difficult task when the deceitful was so intricately interwoven with the honest. A summons had come in the early evening, inviting him to a secret meeting. He had gone at once, hoping it might win him a little more time. It had not, for which he was heartily sorry – another day would have seen evidence of all his misdeeds eliminated, and he could have died safe in the knowledge that Edith would never learn what he had kept from her for so many years.

If he had known then that he would not see another dawn, he would have hurried home and spent his last few hours finishing the task he had started. Instead, he had attended a gathering of the Guild of Saints. The Guild was a charitable organisation that he himself had founded as a sop to his nagging conscience. He had encouraged other rich citizens to join, too, and was proud of the good work they had done. He had gone that night to ensure it would continue after his death. After all, it might count in his favour when his soul was weighed.

He had started to feel unwell during a discussion about the widows’ fund, but he had paid the signs no heed. However, when he had stood up at the end of the meeting, he had known that something was badly amiss. He had hurried home, and succeeded in burning a few more documents before pain and weakness drove him to his bed, at which point Edith had sent for Rougham.

Stanmore glanced at the medicus, who was haughtily informing Edith that the only remedy for marsh fever was snail juice and cloves. How the man could have made such a wildly inaccurate diagnosis was beyond Stanmore – Matt would certainly have seen the truth. But there was no point saying anything; it was not important. In fact, perhaps it was even better this way.

‘I have changed my will.’ Stanmore felt as though he was speaking underwater, every word an effort. ‘You will inherit this house, the manor in Trumpington and the business. Richard will have everything else. He will be pleased – he has never been interested in cloth, and this leaves him rich without the bother of overseeing warehouses.

Edith blinked. ‘You are not going to die! You will feel better in the morning.’

He did not try to argue. ‘Richard is not the son I hoped he would be. He is selfish and decadent, and I dislike his dissipated friends. Do not turn to him for help when I am gone. Zachary Steward knows the business, and can be trusted absolutely. Matt will support you with everything else. He is a good man.’

A good man who would be guilt-stricken for being away when he was needed, thought Stanmore sadly. It was a pity. He would have spared him that if he could.

‘Stop, Oswald!’ cried Edith, distressed. ‘This is gloomy talk.’

He managed to grab her hand, but darkness was clawing at the edges of his vision, and he sensed he did not have many moments left. He gazed lovingly at her, then slowly closed his eyes. He did not open them again.

Chesterton, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels (29 September) 1358

John Potmoor was a terrible man. He had lied, cheated, bullied and killed to make himself rich, and was hated and feared across an entire region. No crime was beneath him, and as he became increasingly powerful, he recruited more and more like-minded henchmen to aid him in his evil deeds. Yet it was a point of pride to him that he was just as skilled a thief now as he had been in his youth, and to prove it, he regularly went out burgling himself.

Although by far the richest pickings were in Cambridge, Potmoor did not operate there – he was no fool, and knew better than to take on the combined strength of Sheriff and Senior Proctor. Then an opportunity arose. Sheriff Tulyet was summoned to London to account for an anomaly in the shire’s taxes, and Brother Michael went to Peterborough. Potmoor was delighted: their deputies were members of the Guild of Saints, as was Potmoor himself, and guildsmen always looked after each other. He moved quickly to establish himself in fresh pastures, and they turned a blind eye to his activities, just as he expected.

Not every guildsman was happy with his expansion, though: Oswald Stanmore objected vociferously to Potmoor’s men loitering around the quays where his barges unloaded. Then Stanmore died suddenly, and those who supported him were quick to fall silent. By the time Brother Michael returned, Potmoor’s hold on the town was too strong to break, and the felon was assailed with a sense of savage invincibility. But he had woken that morning feeling distinctly unwell.

At first, he thought nothing of it – it was an ague caused by the changing seasons and he would soon shake it off. But he grew worse as the day progressed, and by evening he was forced to concede that he needed a physician. He sent for John Meryfeld, and was alarmed by the grave expression on the man’s normally jovial face. A murmured ‘oh, dear’ was not something anyone liked to hear from his medicus either.

At Meryfeld’s insistence, Surgeon Holm was called to bleed the patient, but the sawbones’ expression was bleak by the time the procedure was finished. Unnerved, Potmoor summoned the town’s other medical practitioners – Rougham of Gonville, Lawrence of Winwick Hall and Eyer the apothecary. The physicians asked a number of embarrassingly personal questions, then retreated to consult their astrological tables. When their calculations were complete, more grim looks were exchanged, and the apothecary began to mix ingredients in a bowl, although with such a want of zeal that it was clear he thought he was wasting his time.

A desperate fear gripped Potmoor at that point, and he ordered his son Hugo to fetch Matthew Bartholomew. Although the most talented of the town’s medici, Potmoor had resisted asking him sooner because he was Stanmore’s brother-in-law. Potmoor did not know the physician well enough to say whether he had taken his kinsman’s side in the quarrel over the wharves, but he had been unwilling to take the chance. Now, thoroughly frightened, he would have accepted help from the Devil himself had it been offered.

Hugo rode to Cambridge as fast as his stallion would carry him, but heavy rain rendered the roads slick with mud on the way back, and Bartholomew was an abysmal horseman. Hugo was forced to curtail his speed – the physician would be of no use to anyone if he fell off and brained himself – so the return journey took far longer than it should have done.

They arrived at Chesterton eventually, and the pair hurried into the sickroom. It was eerily quiet. The other medici stood in a silent semi-circle by the window, while Potmoor’s henchmen clustered together in mute consternation.

‘You are too late,’ said Surgeon Holm spitefully. He did not like Bartholomew, and was maliciously gratified that his colleague had braved the storm for nothing. ‘We did all we could.’

Hugo’s jaw dropped. ‘My father is dead? No!’

‘It is God’s will,’ said Meryfeld gently. ‘We shall help you to lay him out.’

‘Or better yet, recommend a suitable woman,’ said Rougham. It was very late, and he wanted to go home.

‘But he was perfectly well yesterday,’ wailed Hugo. ‘How can he have died so quickly?’

‘People do,’ said Lawrence, an elderly gentleman with white hair and a kindly smile. ‘It happens all the time.’

‘How do you know he is dead?’ demanded Hugo. ‘He might just be asleep.’

‘He is not breathing,’ explained Meryfeld patiently. ‘His eyes are glazed, he is cold and he is stiff. All these are sure signs that the life has left him.’

‘Declare him dead so we can go,’ whispered Rougham to Bartholomew. ‘I know it is wrong to speak ill of the departed, but Potmoor was a vicious brute who terrorised an entire county. There are few who will mourn his passing – other than his equally vile helpmeets and Hugo.’

Bartholomew stepped towards the bed, but immediately sensed something odd about the body. He examined it briefly, then groped in the bag he always wore looped over his shoulder for his smelling salts.

Sal ammoniac?’ asked Eyer in surprise, when he saw the little pot of minerals and herbs that he himself had prepared. ‘That will not work, Matt. Not on a corpse.’

Bartholomew ignored him and waved it under Potmoor’s nose. For a moment, nothing happened. Then Potmoor sneezed, his eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright.

‘I have just been in Heaven!’ the felon exclaimed. ‘I saw it quite clearly – angels with harps, bright light, and the face of God himself! Why did you drag me back from such a paradise?’

‘That is a good question, Bartholomew,’ muttered Rougham sourly. ‘Why could you not have left him dead?’