The Fifteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Life is unsettled in Cambridge in the autumn of 1357, and both Michaelhouse and its physician Matthew Bartholomew have more than their fair share of misfortune.
The College, which has always teetered on the edge of financial collapse, suddenly discovers itself to be bankrupt, its Master is attacked, and a much-prized pair of silver-gilt chalices have been stolen. Bartholomew has his problems, too: after a woman dies in premature labour, he discovers that some medicinal potions have disappeared from his store, including pennyroyal, a drug known to induce miscarriages.
The Michaelhouse Fellows suspect that their treasurer, Wynewyk, has been fiddling the books. Bartholomew is horrified by the accusation, as Wynewyk has always been an honest man and a decent and honourable friend. But before anyone can confront Wynewyk with the charge, he dies in bizarre and inexplicable circumstances.
With their trust in the security of Michaelhouse badly shaken, Bartholomew and his friend Brother Michael have little time to get to the bottom of the tangled mysteries before the College’s reputation is permanently damaged – and even more people die.
The scream echoed along Milne Street a second time. Doors were opening, lights flickered under window shutters, and voices murmured as neighbours were startled awake. Matthew Bartholomew, physician and Doctor of Medicine at the College of Michaelhouse, broke into a run. Folk were beginning to emerge from their houses, asking each other why Edith Stanmore was making such an unholy racket in the middle of the night. The noise was coming from her house, was it not?
It was cold for the time of year, and Bartholomew could see his breath pluming in front of him as he sprinted along the road; it was illuminated by the faint gleam of the lamp his book-bearer, Cynric, was holding. There was rain in the air, too, spiteful little droplets carried in a bitter wind that stung where they hit. He glanced up at the sky, trying to gauge the hour. Other than the disturbance caused by the howls, the town was silent, and the velvety blackness indicated it was the darkest part of the night, perhaps one or two o’clock.
‘What is happening?’ called one of Milne Street’s residents, peering out of his door. It was Robert de Blaston the carpenter; his wife Yolande was behind him. ‘Who is making that awful noise? Is it your sister? I can see from here that her lamps are lit.’
Bartholomew sincerely hoped it was not Edith howling in such agony. She was his older sister, who had raised him after the early death of their parents, and he loved her dearly. Stomach churning, he forced himself to slow down as he negotiated his way past Blaston’s home. The recent addition of twins to the carpenter’s ever-expanding brood meant they had been forced to move to a larger property, and he was in the process of renovating it; the road outside was littered with scaffolding, wood and discarded pieces of rope. Bartholomew’s instinct was to ignore the hazard and race as fast as he could to Edith’s house, but common sense prevailed – he would be no use to her if he tripped and knocked himself senseless.
‘It is not Edith – it is a woman in labour,’ said Yolande, seeing his stricken expression and hastening to reassure him. Bartholomew supposed she knew what she was talking about: the twins brought her number of offspring to fourteen. ‘Edith must have taken in a Frail Sister.’
Bartholomew faltered. A lady named Matilde had coined that particular phrase as a sympathetic way of referring to Cambridge’s prostitutes. He had been on the verge of asking Matilde to marry him, but had dallied too long, and she had left the town more than two years before without ever knowing his intentions. It had been one of the worst days of his life, and even the expression ‘Frail Sisters’ was enough to make him reflect on all that his hesitancy had caused him to lose. But he came to his senses sharply when he blundered into some of Blaston’s building paraphernalia and became hopelessly entangled.
‘There are more Frail Sisters than usual,’ Yolande went on, watching her husband try to free him – a task not made any easier by the physician’s agitated struggles. ‘Summer came too early and spoiled the crops, so a lot of women are forced to earn money any way they can.’
Another cry shattered the silence of the night. In desperation, Bartholomew pulled a surgical knife from his medical bag and began to hack at the rope that had wrapped itself around his foot. He could not really see what he was doing, and the carpenter jerked away in alarm.
‘I cannot imagine why you are in such a hurry,’ Blaston muttered, standing well back. ‘You are not a midwife, so you are not obliged to attend pregnant—’
‘He is different from the other physicians,’ interrupted Yolande briskly. ‘The Frail Sisters trust him with their personal ailments, because Matilde said they could.’
Suddenly, Bartholomew was free. He began to run again, aiming for the faint gleam ahead that represented his book-bearer’s lamp – Cynric, of course, was far too nimble to become enmeshed in the carpenter’s carelessly strewn materials. There were two more wails before the physician reached Edith’s house, and without bothering to knock, he flung open the door and rushed inside.
Edith’s husband, Oswald Stanmore, was a wealthy merchant, and his Milne Street property was luxurious. Thick woollen rugs were scattered on the floor, and fine tapestries hung on the walls. Not for him the stinking tallow candles used by most people; his were beeswax, and gave off the sweet scent of honey. A number were lit, casting an amber glow around the room. They illuminated Edith, kneeling next to someone who flailed and moaned. The rugs beneath the patient were soaked in blood; there was far too much of it, and Bartholomew knew he had been called too late.
‘Thank God you are here, Matt!’ Edith cried when she saw him. Her face was pale and frightened. ‘Mother Coton says she does not know what else to try.’
Bartholomew’s heart sank. Mother Coton was the town’s best midwife, and if she was stumped for solutions, then he was unlikely to do any better. He knelt next to the writhing woman and touched her face. It was cold and clammy, and her breathing was shallow. He had been expecting someone younger, and was surprised to see a woman well into her forties. Her body convulsed as she was seized by another contraction, and the scream that accompanied it was loud enough to hurt his ears.
‘It is getting worse,’ said Edith in a choked voice. ‘Do something!’
‘She took a potion to rid herself of her child,’ explained Mother Coton. She was a large, competent person, whose thick grey hair was bundled into a neat coif. ‘Pennyroyal, most likely.’
‘No,’ objected Edith. ‘I am sure she—’
‘I know the symptoms,’ interrupted Mother Coton quietly. ‘I have seen them hundreds of times. She brought this on herself.’
‘But Joan wanted this child,’ cried Edith, distressed. ‘She had all but given up hope of providing her husband with an heir, and was delighted when she learned she was pregnant.’
Mother Coton declined to argue. She turned to the physician. ‘Can you save her? You snatched Yolande de Blaston from the jaws of death after I told her family to expect the worst. God knows how – witchcraft, probably. Will you do the same for this woman?’
‘I cannot,’ said Bartholomew, hating the dismay that immediately flooded into Edith’s face. It upset him so much that he barely registered why Mother Coton thought he had been successful with Yolande – he was used to people assuming his medical triumphs owed more to sorcery than book-learning and a long apprenticeship with a talented Arab medicus, but he did not like it, and usually made a point of telling them they were mistaken. ‘I can only ease her passing.’
‘No!’ shouted Edith, beginning to cry. ‘You must help her. Please, Matt!’
Her tears tore at his heart, but she was asking the impossible. He began to drip a concentrated form of poppy juice between the dying woman’s lips, hoping it would dull the pain and make her last few moments more bearable.
‘I have never seen this lady before,’ said Mother Coton to Edith, while he worked. ‘And I know most of the pregnant women in Cambridge. Is she a visitor?’
Edith nodded, sobbing. ‘We were childhood friends, although I have not seen her for years – not since she married and left Cambridge. We met by chance in the Market Square two days ago, and she has been staying with me since. She came to buy ribbons for the baby clothes she plans to make.’
‘Then I am sorry for your loss,’ mumbled Mother Coton, in the automatic way that suggested these were words uttered on far too regular a basis.
‘Is Joan’s husband staying here, too?’ Bartholomew asked. ‘If so, we should summon him.’
‘He is lord of Elyan Manor, in Suffolk. But he did not come with her to shop for baby baubles – he stayed home.’ Edith’s hands flew to her mouth in horror. ‘Oh, Lord! What will Henry say when he learns what has happened? He will be distraught – Joan said this child means a lot to him.’
‘She came alone?’ asked Bartholomew, surprised. Suffolk was a long way away, especially for a woman at such an advanced stage in her pregnancy.
‘She came with her household priest, who had business with King’s Hall. He is staying at the Brazen George.’ Edith clambered quickly to her feet. ‘I shall send a servant to—’
‘It is too late,’ said Bartholomew, as Joan’s life-beat fluttered into nothing. ‘I am sorry.’
Edith stared at him, and any colour remaining in her face drained away. ‘Then she has been murdered,’ she declared in an unsteady voice. ‘Do not look at me in that disbelieving way, Matt. I have never been more sure of anything in my life.’