The Seventh Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Cambridge, March 1354, and the cause of murder is once more on the minds of physician Matthew Bartholomew and his colleague Brother Michael.
It is a time of division and denomination at the great University. The Carmelites and the Dominicans are at theological loggerheads, so much so that the more fanatical members are willing to swap rational judgement for a deadlier form of debate. And no sooner is Carmelite friar Faricius found stabbed than a Junior Proctor is found hanging from the walls of the Dominican Friary.
What was Faricius doing out when he had not been given permission to wander? How are the nuns at the nearby convent of St Radegund involved? And who is brokering trouble between Cambridge and its rival University at Oxford? The longer their enquiries go on, the more Bartholomew and Michael realise that the murders are less to do with high-minded academic principles, and more to do with far baser instincts.
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A sharp wind gusted across the flat land that surrounded the Benedictine convent of St Radegund, rustling the dead leaves on the trees and hissing through the long reeds that grew near the river. The friar shivered, and glanced up at the sky. It was an indescribably deep black, and was splattered with thousands of tiny lights. The more he gazed at them, the more stars he could see, glittering, flickering and remote. He pulled his cloak more tightly around him. Clear skies were very pretty, but they heralded a cold night, and he could already feel a frost beginning to form on the ground underfoot.
Against the chilly darkness of the night, the lights from St Radegund’s Convent formed a welcoming glow. The friar could smell wood-smoke from the fires that warmed the solar and dormitory, and could hear the distant voices of the nuns on the breeze as they finished reciting the office of compline and readied themselves for bed.
And then the others began to arrive. They came singly and in pairs, glancing around them nervously, although the friar could not tell whether their unease came from the fact that robbers frequented the roads that lay outside Cambridge, or whether they knew that it was not seemly to be seen lurking outside a convent of Benedictine nuns at such an hour. He watched them knock softly on the gate, which opened immediately to let them inside, and then went to join them when he was sure they were all present.
The prioress had made her own chamber available to the powerful men who had left their cosy firesides to attend the nocturnal meeting. It was a pleasant room, filled with golden light from a generous fire, and its white walls and flagstone floors were tastefully decorated with tapestries and rugs. The friar was not the only man to appreciate the heat from the hearth or to welcome the warmth of a goblet of mulled wine in his cold hands.
The nuns saw their guests comfortably settled, and then started to withdraw, leaving the men to their business. The prioress and her sacristan were commendably discreet, not looking too hard or too long at any of the men, and giving the comforting impression that no one would ever learn about the meeting from them. However, a young novice, whom the friar knew was called Tysilia, was a different matter. Her dark eyes took in the scene with undisguised curiosity, and she settled herself on one of the benches that ran along the wall, as if she imagined she would be allowed to listen to what was about to take place.
‘Come, Tysilia,’ ordered the prioress, pausing at the door when she saw what her underling had done. ‘What is discussed here tonight has nothing to do with us.’
Tysilia looked as if she did not agree, and regarded her superior with innocent surprise. ‘But these good gentlemen came here to visit us, Reverend Mother. It would be rude to abandon them.’
The friar saw the prioress stifle a sigh of annoyance. ‘We will tend to them later, if they have need of our company. But for the time being, they wish to be left alone.’
‘With each other?’ asked Tysilia doubtfully. Looking around at the eccentric collection of scholars and clerics who had gathered that night, the friar could see her point. ‘Why?’
‘That is none of our affair,’ said the prioress sharply. She strode across the room to take the awkward novice by the arm. ‘And it is time we were in our beds.’
She bundled Tysilia from the room, while the sacristan gave the assembled scholars an apologetic smile. It did little to alleviate the uneasy atmosphere that now filled the room.
‘I hope she can be trusted not to tell anyone what she has seen,’ said the man who had called the meeting, anxiety written clear on his pallid face. ‘You promised me absolute discretion.’
The sacristan nodded reassuringly. ‘Do not worry about Tysilia. She will mention this meeting to no one.’
‘Tysilia,’ mused one of the others thoughtfully. ‘That is the name of the novice who is said to have driven that Carmelite student-friar – Brother Andrew – to his death.’
‘That is hardly what happened,’ said the sacristan brusquely. ‘It is not our fault that your students fall in love with us, then cast themselves into the King’s Ditch when they realise that they cannot have what they crave.’
‘It seemed to me that Tysilia knew exactly what she was doing,’ said the friar, entering the conversation. He disliked Tysilia intensely, and felt, like many University masters, that pretty nuns should be kept well away from the hot-blooded young men who flocked to the town to study. ‘Her sly seduction of him was quite deliberate.’
‘You are wrong,’ said the sacristan firmly. ‘Poor Tysilia is cursed with a slow mind. She does not have the wits to do anything sly.’
‘I do not like the sound of this,’ said a scholar who was wearing a thick grey cloak. ‘If she is so simple, how do we know she can be trusted not to tell people what she saw here tonight?’
‘Her memory is poor,’ said the sacristan, attempting to curb her irritation at the accusations and sound reassuring. ‘By tomorrow, she will have forgotten all about you.’
‘That is probably true,’ said the man who had called the meeting. ‘She certainly barely recalls me from one visit to the next.’ He nodded a dismissal to the sacristan, who favoured him with a curt bow of the head and left, closing the door behind her.
‘We did not come here to talk about weak-witted novices,’ said the grey-cloaked scholar. ‘We came to discuss other matters.’
Despite the warmth of the room, several men had kept their faces hidden in the shadows of their hoods, as if they imagined they might conceal their identities from the others. The friar shook his head in wry amusement: Cambridge was small, and men of influence and standing in the University could not fail to know each other; they could no more make themselves anonymous in the prioress’s small room than they could anywhere else in the town. The friar knew all their names, the religious Order to which they belonged, and in some cases, even their family histories and details of their private lives.
The man who had called the meeting cleared his throat nervously. ‘Thank you for coming gentlemen. I am sorry to draw you from your friaries, Colleges and hostels at such an hour, but I think we all agree that it is better no one sees us gathering together if we are to be effective.’
There was a rumble of agreement. ‘There is altogether too much plotting and treachery in the University these days,’ said the grey-cloaked scholar disapprovingly. ‘God forbid that anyone should accuse us of it.’
The friar forced himself not to smile. What did the man imagine he was doing? Secret meetings with the heads of other religious Orders, to discuss the kind of issues they all had in mind when honest folk were in bed, sounded like plotting to him.
‘I brought you here to discuss a murder,’ said the man in charge. He gazed at each one of them, his eyes sombre. ‘The murder of one of the University’s highest officials.’