The Eleventh Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
On St Scholastica’s Day in February 1355, Oxford explodes in one of the most serious riots in its turbulent history.
Fearing for their lives, the scholars flee the city, and some choose to travel to Cambridge, believing that the killer of one of their colleagues is to be found in the rival University town. Within hours of their arrival, one member of their party dies, followed quickly by a second. Alarmed, they quickly begin an investigation to find the culprit.
Brother Michael is incensed that anyone should presume to conduct such enquiries in his domain without consulting him, and is dismissive of the visitors’ insistence that Cambridge might be harbouring a murderer. He is irked, too, by the fact that Matthew Bartholomew, his friend and Corpse Examiner, appears to be wholly distracted by the charms of the town’s leading prostitute.
Then it becomes clear that the Oxford riot was not a case of random violence, but part of a carefully orchestrated plot, one that threatens to explode during the imminent visitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and do Cambridge even more harm than Oxford.
The Mark of a Murderer is also available in audio format, read by Andrew Wincott. It can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk as an audio CD or downloaded from iTunes.
Cambridge, Pentecost 1355
Dawn was not far off. The half-dark of an early-June night was already fading to the silver greys of morning, and the Fen-edge town was beginning to wake. Low voices could be heard along some of the streets as scholars and friars left their hostels to attend prime, and an eager cockerel crowed its warning of impending day. Matthew Bartholomew, Master of Medicine and Fellow of Michaelhouse, knew he had lingered too long in Matilde’s house, and that he needed to be careful if he did not want to be seen.
He opened her door and looked cautiously in both directions, before slipping out and closing it softly behind him. Then he strode briskly, aiming to put as much distance between him and his friend as possible. He knew exactly what people would say if they saw him leaving the home of an unmarried woman – some would say a courtesan – at such an unseemly hour.
He slowed when he emerged from the jumble of narrow alleys known as the Jewry and turned into the High Street. The elegant premises of the University’s stationer stood opposite, and Bartholomew detected a flicker of movement behind a window. He grimaced. If John Weasenham or his wife Alyce had spotted him, he was unlikely to keep his business private for long. Both were unrepentant gossips, and the reputation of more than one scholar – innocent and otherwise – had been irrevocably tarnished by their malicious tongues.
However, once away from Weasenham’s shop, Bartholomew began to relax. The High Street was one of the town’s main thoroughfares, and he was a busy physician. Anyone who saw him now would assume he had been visiting a patient, and would never imagine that he had spent the night with the leader of and spokeswoman for the town’s unofficial guild of prostitutes. The University forbade contact between scholars and women, partly because it followed monastic rules, but also because prevention was better than cure: the Chancellor knew what would happen if his scholars seduced wives, daughters and sisters, so declaring the entire female population off limits was a sensible way to stop trouble before it began.
It was not far to Michaelhouse, where Bartholomew lived and worked, and the journey took no time at all when the streets were quiet. When he reached St Michael’s Lane, he continued past his College’s front gates and aimed for a little-used door farther along the alley. He had left it unlocked the previous evening, intending to slip inside without being obliged to explain to the night porter where he had been. He was startled and not very amused to find it locked. Puzzled, he gave it a shake in the hope that it was only stuck, but he could see through the gaps in its wooden panels that a stout bar had been placed across the other side.
He retraced his steps, wondering which of the students – or Fellows for that matter – had crept out and secured the door when he had returned. Or had someone simply noticed it unbarred during a nocturnal stroll in the gardens and had done the responsible thing? It was a nuisance: Bartholomew had been using it for ten days now, and did not want to devise another way to steal inside the College undetected. He walked past the main gates a second time, and headed for nearby St Michael’s Church. All Michaelhouse men were obliged to attend daily religious offices, and no one would question a scholar who began his devotions early – particularly at Pentecost. He wrestled with the temperamental latch on the porch door, then entered.
Although summer was in the air, it was cold inside St Michael’s. Its stone walls and floors oozed a damp chill that carried echoes of winter, and Bartholomew shivered. He walked to the chancel and dropped to his knees, knowing he would not have long to wait before his colleagues appeared. He smothered a yawn and wondered how much longer he could survive sleepless nights, when his days were full of teaching and patients. He had fallen asleep at breakfast the previous morning, and was not entirely sure the Master had believed him when he claimed he had been with a sick patient all night.
The clank of the latch was loud in the otherwise silent church, and Bartholomew felt himself jerk awake. He scrubbed hard at his eyes and took a deep breath as he stood, hoping he would not drop off during the service. The soft slap of leather soles on flagstones heralded the arrival of his fellow scholars; they were led by Master Langelee, followed closely by the Fellows. The students were behind them, while the commoners – men too old or infirm to teach, or visitors from other academic institutions – brought up the rear. They arranged themselves into rows, and Bartholomew took his usual place between Brother Michael and Father William.
‘Where have you been?’ demanded William in a low hiss. William was a Franciscan who taught theology, a large, dirty man who had fanatical opinions about everything. ‘You left shortly after dusk and have been gone ever since.’
His voice was indignant, as if Bartholomew’s absence was a personal affront, and the physician wondered whether it was he who had barred the door. William was narrow minded and intolerant when it came to University rules, despite the fact that he did not always heed them scrupulously himself.
‘Fever,’ replied Bartholomew shortly. William had no right to question him: that was the Master’s prerogative – and Langelee was mercifully accommodating when it came to the activities of a physician with a long list of needy customers. He encouraged Bartholomew to treat the town’s poor, in the hope that this might induce some of them to spare Michaelhouse during the town’s frequent and often highly destructive riots.
‘What kind of fever?’ asked William uneasily.
‘A serious one,’ replied Bartholomew pointedly, wishing the Franciscan would begin his prayers. He did not want to elaborate on his lie – and he certainly could not tell the truth.
‘Fatal?’ asked William, covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve. His voice went from accusing to alarmed. ‘Is it the Death? There are rumours that it is coming a second time. Not enough folk mended their wicked ways, and God is still angry with them.’
Bartholomew smiled despite his irritation, amused by the way that William did not include himself among those with ‘wicked ways’. ‘It is not the plague.’
‘Then who has this fever? Anyone I know?’
‘A labourer – one of the men hired to clean the town for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Visitation next week.’ This was true: he had indeed been summoned to tend one of the hollow-eyed peasants who worked all day for the price of a meal the previous evening.
‘I do not mingle with such folk,’ said William loftily – and wholly untruthfully, since meeting the poor was unavoidable in a small town like Cambridge, and William was not a callous man, despite his pretensions of grandeur. ‘They are beneath the dignity of the Keeper of the University Chest and Cambridge’s best theologian.’ Smugly proud of himself, he turned his attention to his devotions.
‘That is not how I would describe him,’ muttered Brother Michael, who had been listening. ‘Well, he is the Keeper of the University Chest, but he is no more a theologian than is Matilde.’
Bartholomew glanced sharply at him, and could tell from the sly gleam in the monk’s eyes that more was known about his nocturnal forays than he would have liked. The obese Benedictine held the post of the University’s Senior Proctor, and was responsible for maintaining law and order among the scholars and a good deal more besides. He had a legion of beadles who patrolled the streets, hunting students who broke the University’s strict rules – and any academic caught in a tavern or fraternising with women could expect a hefty fine. Bartholomew supposed that one had spotted him visiting Matilde, and had reported the transgression to Michael.
Bartholomew was not only Michael’s closest friend, but also his Corpse Examiner, which meant he was paid a fee to investigate any sudden or unexpected deaths among members of the University or on University property. These occurred with distressing frequency, because life in Cambridge – as in any town across the country – was fraught with danger. People were killed in brawls; they had accidents with carts, horses and unstable buildings; they died from diseases, injuries and vagaries of the weather; and sometimes they took their own lives. Bartholomew and Michael explored them all, which meant that although any beadle would think twice about actually arresting Bartholomew for visiting a woman, he would certainly not hesitate to tell the Senior Proctor about the crime.
‘You should be careful, Matt,’ whispered Michael. ‘Cambridge is a small town and very little happens that someone does not notice – even when you are being cautious.’
‘I know,’ said Bartholomew, closing his eyes prayerfully to indicate the conversation was over.
Michael was not so easily silenced. ‘I needed you earlier, and you were nowhere to be found. Then I discovered the orchard door unbarred – for the tenth night in a row.’
Bartholomew opened his eyes and regarded the fat monk accusingly. ‘Did you close it?’
Michael pursed his lips, offended. ‘Knowing you planned to use it later? Of course not! What sort of friend do you think I am?’
‘I am sorry,’ muttered Bartholomew. He rubbed his eyes again, and wished he felt more alert; Michael was the last man to lock him out, no matter what rules he was breaking. He changed the subject. ‘Why did you need me? Were you ill?’
‘There was a murder.’
‘How do you know it was murder?’
‘Because there was a dagger embedded in the corpse’s back,’ replied Michael tartly. ‘And even a lowly proctor knows a man cannot do that to himself.’