The Sixth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Cambridge 1353. It is a damp, gloomy November day, and the body by the River Cam is just the beginning of the intrigue in store for Michaelhouse.
Physician Matthew Bartholomew recognises the deceased as the book-bearer of the Michaelhouse Fellow John Runham. The death looks like suicide – and Runham’s servant was well known for his black moods – but before Bartholomew can reach a definite conclusion, a second tragic incident occurs.
Meanwhile, at Michaelhouse, the Master announces his retirement. Everyone is astonished and dismayed – everyone, that is, except the ruthless Runham. Once he has contrived to have himself elected to the post, he moves to make his mark on the College: sacking the choir, building a courtyard the College cannot afford, and demanding that Bartholomew choose between his teaching and his medical work. But just as Bartholomew is agonising over such an impossible decision, the new Master is discovered dead …
‘If you do not keep still, how can I pull the sting out?’ asked Matthew Bartholomew of Brother Michael in exasperation.
‘You are hurting me!’ howled Michael, struggling as the physician bent over him again with a small pair of tweezers. ‘You are jabbing about with those things like a woodpecker on a tree. Have you no compassion?’
‘It is only a bee sting, Brother.’ Bartholomew was bemused by the fuss the Benedictine was making. ‘And if you sit still for a moment, I could remove it, and all your terrible suffering would be over.’
Michael regarded him suspiciously. ‘I have heard of bee stings proving fatal to some people. Are you trying to tell me something in your discrete, physicianly way?’
Startled, Bartholomew laughed aloud. ‘It would take more than a mere bee to make an end of Brother Michael, the University’s Senior Proctor and valued agent of the Bishop of Ely – although I have never witnessed such drama in all my life. Even children do not squall and shriek like you do.’
‘That is probably because they do not understand what you are about to do,’ said Michael haughtily. ‘Well, come on, then; get it over with.’
Imperiously, he thrust a flabby arm at Bartholomew and turned his head away, eyes tightly closed. Once he had deigned to be cooperative, it was a simple task for the physician to pluck out the offending sting and then daub the afflicted area with a salve of goose grease and juniper berries, although the monk accompanied the operation with an unremitting monologue of complaint.
They were in Bartholomew’s medicine store at Michaelhouse, the College at the University of Cambridge where they held their Fellowships. It was a small, dimly lit chamber, more cupboard than room, that was always filled with the bitter-sour aroma of the potions and salves that were stored in it. Every available scrap of wall-space was covered by overloaded shelves, and the workbench under the window was stained and burned where ingredients had spilled as they had been mixed.
It was a damp, gloomy November day, and clouds sagged in a lumpy grey sheet across the small town and the marshy expanse of the Fens beyond. University term was well underway, and Bartholomew could hear the stentorian tones of his colleague Father William, who was teaching in the hall. Bartholomew was impressed. The previous year a generous benefactor had paid for the windows in the hall and the adjoining conclave to be glazed, and for the Franciscan’s voice to carry through the glass to the other side of the College implied some serious volume. Bartholomew wondered how the other masters could make themselves heard above it.
‘Right,’ he said, as he finished tending Michael’s arm. ‘That should heal nicely, if you do not scratch it.’
‘But it itches,’ protested Michael immediately. ‘It is driving me to distraction.’
‘It will itch even more if you keep fiddling with it,’ said Bartholomew unsympathetically. ‘How did you come to be stung by a bee anyway? It is the wrong time of year for bees.’
‘Apparently not for this one,’ said Michael stiffly. ‘I bought a cake from a baker in the Market Square, and the thing decided to share it with me. No amount of flapping and running seemed to deter it, and so I was reduced to swatting it when it landed. Then it had the audacity to sting me.’
‘If you were only stung, but the bee was crushed, you can rest assured that you had the better end of the bargain. But we have been away from our students long enough. I want mine to learn about how Galen developed the Hippocratic theory of the four humours, not about how the Devil founded the Dominican Order, which is what Father William seems to be bawling.’
‘Is he really?’ asked Michael, half startled and half amused. ‘I have been in such agonies with this sting that I have not been listening to our Franciscan fanatic today – and given the volume at which he teaches, that should tell you something of the suffering I have endured.’
Bartholomew frowned. ‘William should be more discreet about his dislike of Dominicans. Master Kenyngham told me last night that one of our two new Fellows – due to arrive today – is a Dominican.’
‘I expect Kenyngham told William, too – hence this morning’s bigotry. You know how the Franciscans and the Dominicans in Cambridge loathe each other, Matt. They are always quarrelling about something they consider desperately important – usually something the rest of us neither understand nor care about.’
‘I hope William and this new Dominican will not turn Michaelhouse into a battleground,’ said Bartholomew with feeling. ‘We have managed to remain pleasantly free of squabbles between religious Orders so far, and I would like it to remain that way.’
‘It might spice things up a little,’ said Michael, green eyes gleaming as he contemplated the intrigues that might accompany such a situation.
‘It would not,’ said Bartholomew firmly, replacing the jar of salve in his bag and washing his hands. ‘William does not have the intellect to embark on the kind of clever plotting you enjoy – he is more of a fists man.’
Michael laughed. ‘You are right. But you have missed your chance to enthral your students with lurid descriptions of bile, phlegm and blood this morning, Matt, because the porter will ring the bell for the midday meal soon. Hurry up, or there will be nothing left.’
He had shot from the storeroom and was crossing the courtyard to be first at the table, before Bartholomew could reply. The physician smiled at the fat monk’s greed, finished tidying his chamber, and followed at a more sedate pace. He shivered as he walked across the yard to the hall. A bitter north wind blew, bringing with it the promise of yet more rain, and perhaps even snow. He had just reached the porch, when Cynric, his book-bearer, came hurrying towards him, shouting to catch his attention.
‘You had better come with me, boy,’ said Cynric breathlessly. ‘I have just found Justus dead near Dame Nichol’s Hythe, on the river.’