Wilson died shortly after he was absolved of his sins. Bartholomew helped Cynric stitch the body into one of the singed wall-hangings that Michael and Gray had used to put out the flames.
Bartholomew did not want the body to stay in the College, nor did he want it lying in the church where it might infect others. The only solution was to dig a temporary grave so that it could be retrieved when the tomb was ready.
Gray went to purchase a coffin at an extortionate price — they had become a rare commodity- and at dawn that day, Cynric and Gray dug a deep grave at the back of the church. Agatha, Cynric and Gray watched from a distance as Bartholomew and Michael lowered the coffin, while William muttered a requiem mass at top speed.
When it was over, they went into the church for the morning service and then back to College for breakfast.
The hall was cold and gloomy, and Bartholomew suggested that they all eat in the kitchen, where it was warm and Cynric would not have so far to carry the food. The other scholars had tended to prepare their own breakfasts in their rooms since the onset of the plague, to avoid unnecessary contact.
William gulped down some bread and watered wine, and went to take the news of Wilson’s death to the Chancellor. Agatha watched him go.
‘Would it be an unchristian thing to be thankful that that pompous old windbag was dead?’ she asked Michael.
‘Yes,’ replied Michael, his hands full of chicken and his face covered in grease.
‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘you have advance warning of what I will say in my confession. The College will be better without him. What will happen now?’
Michael swallowed a huge mouthful of food, and almost choked. Bartholomew pounded him on the back.
‘The Fellows choose two names from their number, and the Chancellor picks one of them,’ Michael said between coughs. As soon as he stopped coughing, he crammed as much food into his mouth as would fit, and went through the same process again.
‘So, which two Fellows will you choose?’ asked Agatha, beginning to clear away the table.
Michael swallowed hard, tears coursing down his cheeks. ‘Dry, this chicken,’ he remarked, making Bartholomew laugh. ‘One nomination will have to be Swynford, I suppose. I would like you to be the other, Matt.’ “I am not doing it,’ Bartholomew gasped in amazement.
“I do not have time.’
‘Well, who else then?’ asked Michael.
‘You, Swynford, William, Alcote. Any of you would do well.’ Bartholomew wondered which of them would promote the cause of the University, and which might be Oxford’s spies. He rose and washed his hands in a bowl of water near the fire. Behind him, he could hear the cracking of bones as Michael savaged the remains of his chicken. Gray dabbled his hands quickly in the cold water, and wiped them on his robe. He did not see why Bartholomew was always washing his hands; they only became dirty again, especially in the shabby hovels that Bartholomew frequented.
Bartholomew’s first duty of the day was to examine Alyngton and five students in the commoners’ room. He lanced the swellings that looked as though they would drain, and left Michael’s Benedictine room-mates with instructions on how to keep the sick scholars comfortable.
That done, he visited three patients in the river men’s houses down by the wharf.
Gray followed him from house to house carrying the heavy bag that contained Bartholomew’s instruments and medicines. Bartholomew could feel the student’s disapproval as he entered the single-roomed shacks that were home to families of a dozen. The only patient of which Gray did not disapprove was the wife of a merchant. She was one of the few cases with which Bartholomew had had success, and was lying in a bed draped with costly cloths, tired, but still living.
The grateful merchant pressed some gold coins into Bartholomew’s hand. Bartholomew wondered whether they would be sufficient to bribe people to drive the carts that collected the dead.
Once the urgent calls were over, Bartholomew turned to Gray.
“I need to discover what happened to Philippa,’ he said. “I am going to try to see if anyone knows Giles Abigny’s whereabouts.’
Gray’s face broke into a smile. ‘You mean you plan to visit a few of his favourite spots?’ he asked cheerfully.
‘Oh, good. Beats traipsing around those dismal hovels.
Where shall we begin?’
Bartholomew was thankful that Gray had so readily agreed to help. ‘The King’s Head,’ he said, saying the first place that came into his head.
Gray frowned. ‘Not a good place to start,’ he said.
‘We would be better going there later when it is busier.
We should visit Bene’t’s first — that is where he spent most of his time outside Michaelhouse. Hugh Stapleton’s brother, Cedric, is ill and now Master Roper is dead, they have no physician. We could see him first and then wheedle an invitation to eat there.’
Bartholomew saw he had a lot to learn in the sleazy ways of detection. He walked with Gray up the High Street to Bene’t Street. Gray strolled nonchalantly into Bene’t Hostel and a notion went through Bartholomew’s mind that the scholars there might consider him to have poached Gray from them. The student had attached himself to Bartholomew with gay abandon, and Bartholomew had not asked whether he had sought permission from the Principal — whoever that was now that Hugh Stapleton had died.
The hostel was little more than a large house, with one room enlarged to make a hall. Bartholomew assumed that the hall would be used for communal meals as well as teaching. The hostel was far warmer than the chilly stone rooms of Michaelhouse, and the smell of boiled cabbage pervaded the whole house. Drying clothes hung everywhere, and the entire place had an aura of controlled, but friendly, chaos. No wonder Abigny had felt more at home here than in the strict orderliness of Michaelhouse.
Gray made for the small hall on the first floor of the building. He stopped to speak to a small, silver-haired man, and then turned to Bartholomew. ‘This is Master Burwell, the Sub-Principal,’ he said. ‘He is very grateful for your offer to attend Cedric Stapleton.’
Bartholomew followed Burwell up some narrow wooden steps into the eaves of the house. ‘How long has Master Stapleton been ill?’ he asked.
‘Since yesterday morning. I am sure there is little you can do, Doctor, but we appreciate you offering to help.’ Burwell glanced round to smile at Bartholomew, and opened the door into a pleasant, slant-sided room with two dormer windows. The windows were glazed, and a fire was lit, so the room was remarkably warm. Bartholomew stepped in and went to the man who lay on the bed. A Dominican lay-brother was kneeling by him, alternating muttered prayers with wiping his patient’s face with a napkin. Bartholomew knelt next to him to peer at the all-too-familiar symptoms.
He took a knife and quickly made criss-cross incisions on the buboes in Stapleton’s armpits and groin. Immediately, a foul smell filled the room, and the lay-brother jerked backwards with a cry of disgust. Bartholomew asked for hot water, and set about cleaning the swellings. It seemed that Bartholomew’s simple operation had afforded Stapleton some relief, for his breathing became easier and his arms and legs relaxed into a more normal position.
Bartholomew sat for a while with Stapleton, then went in search of Gray. He found him holding court in the small hall, in the middle of some tale about how he had sold a pardoner some coloured water to cure him of his stomach gripes, and how the pardoner had returned a week later to tell him that the wonderful medicine had worked.
Bartholomew sat on the end of a bench next to Burwell. Burwell raised his eyebrows questioningly.
‘It is too soon to tell,’ Bartholomew said in response.
‘You will know where you stand with Master Stapleton by nightfall.’
Burwell looked away. ‘We have lost five masters and twelve students,’ he said. ‘How has Michaelhouse fared?’
‘Sixteen students, three commoners, and two Fellows.
The Master died last night.’
‘Wilson?’ asked Burwell incredulously. “I thought he was keeping to his room so he would not be infected.’
‘So he did,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But the pestilence claimed him all the same.’ He was wondering how to breach the subject of Abigny without sounding too obvious, when Burwell did it for him.
‘We heard about Giles Abigny,’ he said. ‘We heard from Stephen Stanmore that he had been hiding in your sister’s attic, and then ran off with Stanmore’s horse.’
‘Do you have any ideas where Giles might be?’
Burwell shook his head. “I never understood what was going on in Giles’s head. A strange combination of incredible shallowness mixed with a remarkable depth of learning. I do not know where he might be.’
‘When was the last time you saw him?’ asked Bartholomew.
Burwell thought carefully. ‘He was very shocked at Hugh’s death. After that he went wild, trying to squeeze every ounce of pleasure from what he thought might be a short life. He continued in that vein for perhaps a week. Then he seemed to quieten down, and we saw less of him. Then, about two weeks ago, after going to the King’s Head, he regaled us with a dreadful tale about cheating at dice and stealing the wages of half the Castle garrison. He had an enormous purseful of money, so perhaps there was some truth in it. He went off quite late, and I have not seen him since.’
Bartholomew tried to hide his disappointment. A sighting two weeks ago did not really help. He stood to leave, and beckoned Gray.
‘Please send someone for me at Michaelhouse if I can be of any more help to Cedric,’ he said to Burwell.
‘And thank you for your assistance with Giles.’
Burwell smiled again, and escorted them to the door. He watched as they made their way down Bene’t Street and the smile faded from his face.
He beckoned to a student, and whispered in his ear. Within a few moments, the student was scurrying out of the hostel towards Milne Street, his cloak held tightly against the chill of the winter afternoon.
Bartholomew and Gray spent two fruitless hours enquiring after Abigny in the town’s taverns. They came up with nothing more than Burwell had told them, except that Abigny’s idiosyncrasies seemed to be notorious among the townspeople.
Bartholomew was ready to give up, and retire to bed, when Gray, with a display of energy that made Bartholomew wonder whether he had been at the medicine store, suggested they walk to Trumpington to visit the Laughing Pig.
‘It is best we visit at night,’ he said. ‘More people will be there, and they will have had longer for the ale to loosen their tongues.’
So the two set off for Trumpington. Although it was only two miles, Bartholomew felt he was walking to the ends of the Earth. A bitter wind blew directly into their faces and cut through their clothes. It was a clear night, and they could hear the crack and splinter of the water freezing in the ruts and puddles on the track as the temperature dropped.
Bartholomew breathed a sigh of relief when the Laughing Pig came into sight. Within a few minutes they were seated in the tavern’s large whitewashed room with frothing tankards of ale in front of them. The tavern was busy, and a fire crackled in a hearth in the middle of the room, filling it with pungent smoke as well as warmth.
The floor was simple beaten earth, which was easier to keep clean than rushes.
Bartholomew was well known in Trumpington, and several people nodded at him in a friendly fashion. He struck up a conversation with a large, florid-faced man who fished for eels in the spring and minded Stanmore’s cows for the rest of the year. The man immediately began to gossip about the disappearance of Philippa.
Bartholomew was dismayed, but not surprised, that her flight had become the subject of village chatter doubtless by way of Stanmore’s party of horsemen who had tried to catch up with the fleeing Abigny.
Overhearing the discussion, several others joined in, including the tavern maid with whom Abigny had claimed he was in love back in the summer. She perched on the edge of the table, casting nervous glances backwards to make sure the landlord did not catch her skiving.
‘How long do you think Giles Abigny was pretending to be his sister?’ Bartholomew asked casually, in a rare moment of silence.
There was a hubbub of conflicting answers. Everyone, it seemed, had ideas and theories. But listening to them, Bartholomew knew that was all they were. He stopped paying attention and sipped at the sour ale.
‘Giles was odd a long time before he did this,’ whispered the tavern maid, who, as Abigny had said, was indeed pretty. She glanced towards the next table where the landlord was serving and pretended to clean up near Bartholomew. ‘The last time I saw him was at the church two Fridays ago. He was hiding behind one of the pillars. I thought he was playing around, but when I grabbed him from behind, he was terrified! He ran out, and I have not seen him since.’
Two Fridays before. That was three days after Philippa had become ill. So Abigny had not been impersonating her at least until then.
‘Do you know where he went?’ Bartholomew asked.
The tavern maid shook her head. “I ran after him, but he had gone.’
The landlord shouted for her to serve other customers, and she left. Bartholomew thought about what she had told him: Abigny had been in the church at Trumpington terrified of something.
He tried to bring the general conversation round to what Abigny’s reasons could be, but the suggestions were so outrageous that he knew no one had any solid facts to add.
Bartholomew and Gray talked with the locals for a while longer, and decided to stay with Edith for the night. Perhaps he would have more luck with his search tomorrow.
Gray was already up and admiring the horses in Stanmore’s stable by the time Bartholomew awoke.
He threw open the window-shutters and looked out over the neat vegetable patches to the village church.
He could see the Gilbertine Canon, standing outside the porch talking to the early risers who had been to his morning mass. The weak winter sun was shining, glittering on the frost that lay over everything like a white sheet of gauze. Bartholomew took a deep breath, and the air was clean and fresh. He understood why Stanmore preferred not to live at the house in Milne Street so near the stinking ditches and waterways of Cambridge.
He went to the garderobes and broke the ice on a bowl of water. Shivering and swearing under his breath, he washed and shaved as fast as he could, and borrowed one of Stanmore’s fresh shirts from the pile on the shelf in the corner. He went down to the kitchens, where a large fire blazed, and he and Edith sat on stools and discussed Philippa’s disappearance. It seemed he could have saved himself a walk, because she had been busy on his behalf, collecting scraps of information from the Trumpington folk.
She, too, had spoken to the tavern girl, and had also questioned the Canon. He had told her that Abigny had frequented the church a great deal following Philippa’s arrival. Abigny had seemed restless and agitated, and once the Canon had alarmed him by standing up suddenly from next to the altar where he had been meditating.
Abigny had turned so white that the Canon had been genuinely concerned for his health. The day after, he had disappeared. The Canon had assumed that Abigny had been waiting while Philippa was ill, and as soon as she was well again, he had returned to Michaelhouse.
‘So,’ said Edith, ‘Giles may have been in the house pretending to be Philippa as early as the day her fever broke, since that was when either of them was last seen.
I do not understand why he did not just come here. He has stayed with us before.’
Bartholomew nodded in agreement.
‘Of course,’ she continued, ‘since none of us actually saw Philippa once her fever had gone, there is no reason to assume that she was alone in the room.’
Bartholomew stared at her. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Perhaps as soon as Philippa was out of danger from the plague, he climbed up to her window to be with her.
Perhaps there were two people in the room for some of the time, not just one. I thought she had rather a voracious appetite; she always ate everything we left on the trays outside the door, and we began leaving her larger and larger amounts. I thought it was just a reaction to the fever, or even boredom, making her eat so much.
‘And you know what that means?’ Edith continued, after a pause. ‘It means that he probably nursed her himself for a time, before she left and he took her place.
It means that she was not spirited away while she was still weak, but when she was stronger. So she probably went voluntarily.’
Bartholomew was not sure whether this was good or bad. ‘But why was she spirited anywhere? Why did she not stay here? Why did Abigny feel obliged to keep up such a pretence? And why did Philippa and Giles not feel that they could trust us enough to tell us what was going on?’
Edith patted his hand. ‘These are strange times, Matt,’ she said. ‘Oswald told me that one of his apprentices hanged himself two days ago, because he had accidentally touched a plague victim. He was so afraid he might catch it, he decided he would rather die by his own hand. Do not question too much. I am sure you will find Philippa eventually. And Giles.’
But even if he did, Bartholomew thought, things would never be the same. If Edith was right, and Philippa had gone from the house willingly, it meant that she had not trusted him enough to tell him her motives. The same was true of Giles.
Edith stood up. “I must do some work,’ she said. ‘Did you know that we have the children from the village who have been orphaned in our stable loft? It is warm and dry there, and we can make sure they are fed properly. The bigger ones are helping to tend the vegetable plots, and I take care of the little ones here. Labour is becoming scarce, Matt. We will all starve if we do not continue to look after the fields.’
Bartholomew was not surprised at his sister’s practicalities, nor of her carefully concealed charity. She would not offend the children’s dignity by giving them meals and a place to stay for nothing, but provided them with small duties that would make them feel they were earning their keep.
Stanmore took a small cart into Cambridge so that Bartholomew and Gray would not have to walk. Richard went too, sitting in the back interrogating Gray about life as a student in Cambridge, and making comparisons with his own experiences in Oxford.
Bartholomew alighted at St Botolph’s Church to see Colet, while the others went on to Milne Street.
The monks knelt in a line before the altar, although Bartholomew noted that there were fewer than there had been previously. Colet, however, was not there.
Bartholomew went to Rudde’s Hostel in search of him, but was told by the porter that he had gone out early that morning, and had not been seen since. Bartholomew’s spirits rose a little. Did this mean that Colet had recovered and was visiting patients again?
The porter, seeing the hopeful look on Bartholomew’s face, shook his head.
‘No. he saddled as ever. He had his hood pulled right over his face, and said he was going out to pick blackberries. At this time of year! He has been saying that every day recently. He will be back later to sit and dribble in the church.’
Bartholomew thanked him, and walked back to Michaelhouse. On the way, he met Master Burwell who asked if there was any news of Abigny. Bartholomew shook his head, and asked whether Giles had seemed afraid.of anything on the last few occasions that Burwell had seen him. Burwell scratched his head.
‘Yes. Now that you mention it. The hostel is a noisy place, and he was constantly jumping and looking round.
I just assumed it was fear of the plague. Several of the students are in a similar state, and I have heard Master Colet is far from well in his mind.’
‘Was there anything specific?’
Burwell thought again. ‘Not that I can put a finger on. He was simply nervous.’
After Bartholomew had enquired after Cedric Stapleton, they parted, and Bartholomew returned to his room. He looked around carefully to see if Abigny had been there, but the minute fragments of rushes that he had secretly placed on Abigny’s belongings were still in place. Gray burst in, full of enthusiasm, but he was less so when Bartholomew dispatched him to buy various herbs and potions from the town herb-seller, known locally as ‘Jonas the Poisoner’ following an incident involving several poorly-labelled bottles some years before.
Bartholomew went to examine his patients in the commoners’ dormitory, to find that three students had died in the night. Roger Alyngton was no better, but no worse. That morning, the frail Father Jerome had complained of a fever, and was lying restlessly next to him. Bartholomew wondered whether Jerome would have the strength or the will to fight the sickness.
When the patients were all resting, Bartholomew slipped out and went into the room that had been Augustus’s and that was now used to store clean blankets and linen. He carefully closed the door. The shutters were already fastened, but the wood had swollen and warped over many years, and were ill-fitting enough to allow sufficient light for Bartholomew to see what he was doing.
He crouched on the window-sill and peered up at the ceiling. He had never really noticed the ceilings in the south wing before. They were really quite beautiful, with elaborate designs carved into the fine dark oak.
Looking carefully, Bartholomew could see no evidence whatsoever of a trap-door. He wondered if Wilson had been lying to him. He jumped down and lit one of the supply of candles he had appropriated from the hall for use in the sickroom. Climbing back onto the window-sill, he held the candle up and looked again. He could still see nothing.
He put the palm of his hand against the ceiling and pushed gently, and he was startled to feel it move. He pushed again, and an entire section of the ceiling came loose. He had to drop the candle to catch the heavy wood and prevent it from crashing down onto his head.
Carefully, he lowered the loose panel onto the floor, relit his candle, and cautiously poked his head into the space beyond.
At first. he could make nothing out, but then gradually he saw that the trap-door, as Wilson had called it, did little more than conceal a way into the attic. He did not know what he had expected — a cramped secret passage, perhaps, with dusty doorways leading away from it. Still holding the candle he hauled himself up, bemused to think that Wilson had been fit enough to do the same.
There was not sufficient room for him to stand upright, so he walked hunched over. The candle was not bright enough to illuminate the whole of the attic, and it faded into deep shadows at the edges. There was an unpleasant smell too, as if generations of small animals had found their way in, but had become trapped and died. Bartholomew shook himself. He was being fanciful.
The attic was basically bare, the wooden floor covered in thick dust, scuffed here and there by some recent disturbances. He walked carefully along the length of the south wing, his way lit by small holes in the floor, although whether these were for providing light or for spying on the people in the rooms below, he could not say. Over the commoners’ room, he could clearly hear the Benedictine whispering comforting words to Alyngton, while over what had been Swynford’s room — where d’Evene had died — he could even read the words on a book that lay open on the table. At the very end of the attic, he found the second trap-door. It was marked by a large metal ring, and when Bartholomew pulled it up, he saw that it gave access to the last staircase. Wilson could easily have climbed into the attic, walked along to the second door, and slipped away down the stairs and back to his own room.
So could the murderer of Paul, Montfitchet, and Augustus.
He lowered the door and retraced his steps, carefully examining the floor for any more entrances and exits.
He found none, but at the far end, where the south wing abutted onto the hall, he found a tiny doorway. He squeezed through it, and down a cramped passageway that was so full of dust and still air that Bartholomew began to feel as though he could not breathe. The passageway turned a corner, and Bartholomew faced a blank wall. He scratched at the stones and mortar with his fingernail. It was old, and had evidently been sealed up many years before. He stooped to look for any signs that it had been tampered with in recent days, but there was nothing. The passageway must have run in the thickness of the west wall of the hall, and perhaps emerged in the gallery at the back. He vaguely recalled Sir John complaining that an old door had been made into the ugly window that was there now, so perhaps the secret passageway had been blocked up then. Regardless, it seemed that the sturdy wall blocking the passage was ancient, and would have no bearing on the current mysteries.
He turned round, and began to squeeze his way down the narrow passage again. As he reached the point where the passage turned the corner, he saw that one of the stones had been prised loose about the level of his knees, and that something had been stuffed into the space. Gingerly, he bent towards it, and eased it out. It was a very dirty green blanket that smelled so rank that Bartholomew obeyed his instinct, and hurled it away from him. As it lay on the floor, something caught his eye. It was a singe mark, about the size of his hand.
Heart thumping, he picked it up by the hem, and took it back into the attic where he spread it out on the floor. It was the blanket that Bartholomew had inspected on the night of Augustus’s death. There were the singe marks that had made Bartholomew think that Augustus had not been imagining things when he had claimed someone had tried to burn him in his bed. And there were other marks too — thick, black, encrusted stains ran in a broad band from one end of the blanket to the middle. Bartholomew knew old blood-stains when he saw them, and their implication made him feel sick.
Augustus must have been taken from his room and hidden up in the attic before Wilson conducted his clandestine search below. Perhaps the murderer had watched Wilson through the spy-holes, or perhaps he had hidden Augustus’s body in the small passageway, so that Wilson would not have seen it when he effected his own escape.
If Wilson had already explored the attic as he claimed, he would have known the little passage was blocked, and would not have tried to use it to get away.
And then what? When Wilson had gone? Augustus had been dead, and no counter-claims from anyone would make Bartholomew disbelieve what he knew.
Had the murderer believed Augustus was still alive, and battered him when he lay wrapped in the blanket? Had Wilson been lying, and it was he who had returned later and battered the poor body? And regardless of which solution was the right one, where was Augustus now?
Bartholomew retraced his steps, carefully exploring every last nook and cranny of the attic, half hoping and half afraid that he would find Augustus. There was nothing: Augustus was not there. Bartholomew went back to the passage. The dust had been disturbed, and not just by his own recent steps. It was highly likely that Augustus had been hidden here until the hue and cry of his death and disappearance had died down.
The candle was beginning to burn low, and Bartholomew felt as though he had gained as much information from the attic as he was going to. At the last minute, he stuffed the blanket back into the hole in the wall again, as he had found it. He did not want the murderer, were he to return, to know about the clues he had uncovered.
He lowered himself through the trap-door back into Augustus’s room and replaced the wooden panel.
As it slid into place, Bartholomew again admired the workmanship that had produced a secret opening that was basically invisible, even when he knew where to look.
He brushed himself off carefully and even picked up the lumps of dust that dropped from his clothes. He did not want anyone to guess what he had been doing. He put his ear to the door, and then let himself out silently.
He glanced in at his patients, and went down the stairs. The sky had clouded over since the morning, and it was beginning to rain. Bartholomew stood in the porch for a moment, looking across the courtyard. It was here he had fallen when Wilson had pushed him down the stairs. He closed his eyes, and remembered the footsteps he had heard as he lay there. That must have been Wilson effecting his escape across the attic floor. In his haste to get away, he had obviously forgotten to move with stealth, and Bartholomew had been able to hear him running.
Bartholomew thought about the night that Augustus had claimed there were devils in his room wanting to burn him alive. It was clear now: someone had climbed through the trap-door into Augustus’s room, locked the door, and tried to set the bed alight. Whoever it was had escaped the same way when Bartholomew and Michael had broken the door down. But that still did not mean that Michael was innocent. He could easily have let himself out of the attic through the other trap-door and run round to Augustus’s staircase to be in time to help Bartholomew batter the door. It would even explain why Michael had been virtually fully dressed in the middle of the night.
Cynric was taking food from the kitchen to the hall for the main meal of the day. Bartholomew walked briskly across the yard, and went up the stairs to the hall. It was cold and gloomy. Cynric had lit some candles, but they only served to make the room seem colder and darker as they flickered and fluttered in the draughts from the windows.
Bartholomew took some leek soup from a cauldron and sat next to Jocelyn of Ripon, more for company than from any feeling of friendship. Jocelyn made room for him and began telling him how the landowners were having to pay high wages to labourers to make them work on the farms. Because so many labourers had died from the plague, those left were in great demand and were able to negotiate large payments.
Jocelyn rubbed his hands gleefully as he described the plight of the rich landowners. He then outlined his plans for gathering groups of people together and selling their labour en masse. This would mean that the labourers would have a good deal of sway over the landowners and could obtain better pay and working conditions. If one landowner treated them unfairly, they would go to another who would be willing to make them a better offer. Jocelyn saw himself in the position of negotiator for these groups of people. Bartholomew, uncharitably, wondered what percentage of the profits the avaricious Jocelyn would take for his efforts. He tried to change the subject.
‘Do you have plans to travel back to Ripon?’
‘Not while there is money to be made here,’
Bartholomew tried again. ‘What made you come to Cambridge last year?’ he asked, taking a piece of salted beef that had less of a green sheen to it than the others.
Jocelyn looked irritated at being sidetracked, and poured himself another generous cup of College wine.
“I contacted Master Swynford. We are distantly related by marriage, and I came here because I plan to start a grammar school in Ripon, and I wanted to learn how it might best be done. I have a house that I can use, and because it will be the only grammar school for miles around, I know it will be successful.’
Bartholomew nodded. He knew all this, because Swynford had talked about it when he had asked the other Fellows whether his relative could come to stay in Michaelhouse in return for teaching grammar.
Jocelyn’s plan had sounded noble, but, having met him, Bartholomew was convinced that the school would be founded strictly as an economic venture and would have little to do with promoting the ideals of education.
As the most senior member present, it was Bartholomew’s responsibility to say the Latin grace that ended all meals in College. This done, he escaped to his room.
Gray had not been able to buy all the medicines that Bartholomew needed, and there was no choice but to walk to Barnwell Priory to see what he could borrow from their infirmarian. Bartholomew waited for Gray to eat, and then set off for the Priory in the rain.
‘You need not come,’ said Bartholomew, when Gray started grumbling. ‘You can stay in College and help in the sick-room.’ “I do not mind going to the Priory, and I want to learn about the medicines. I just do not like all this walking. Miles last night, and miles today. Why do you not get a horse?’
Bartholomew sighed. ‘Not again, Samuel! I do not have a horse because I do not need one. By the time the thing was saddled and ready to go, I could have walked where I was going.’
‘Well, what about when you go to Trumpington?’
Gray demanded petulantly.
Bartholomew felt his exasperation turning to irritation.
“I usually borrow or hire one.’
‘But you cannot hire them now, not with all the stable-men dead of the plague. And Stephen Stanmore will never lend you another after what happened to the last one.’
Bartholomew whipped round and grabbed Gray by the front of his gown. ‘Look! You do not like walking.
You do not like my patients. You do not approve of what I charge them. Perhaps you should find yourself another master under which to study if you find my affairs so disagreeable!’
He released the student, and walked on. After a few paces, he heard Gray following him again. He glanced round, and Gray looked back at him sullenly, like a spoilt child. Gray sulked all the way to the Priory, until listening to Bartholomew and the infirmarian discussing the plague took his mind away from his moodiness.
Bartholomew regretted his outburst; the lad had saved his life after all. He made an effort to include Gray in the discussion, and tried to ensure that Gray understood which medicines he was taking from the infirmarian and what they were for.
Bartholomew and the infirmarian left Gray packing the herbs and potions into a bag, and walked out into the drizzle.
‘How many monks have you lost?’ asked Bartholomew.
The infirmarian bowed his head. ‘More than half, and Father Prior died yesterday. Perhaps our communal way of life promotes the sickness in some way. You have heard that all the Dominicans are dead? But what else should we do? Forsake our Rule and live in isolation like hermits?’
There was no answer to his question.
When Gray was ready, they took their leave of the infirmarian, and walked back along the causeway to the town. Gray had recovered completely from his attack of the sulks, and chattered on about what he planned to do once he had completed his training. Bartholomew grew dispirited listening to him. Did people think of nothing other than making money?
Gray tugged at his cloak suddenly. ‘We should go to St Radegund’s!’ he said.
‘Whatever for? They will refuse us entry.’
‘Maybe Philippa went back there after she left your sister’s house.’
Bartholomew stared at him. Gray was right! Why had he not considered it earlier? Gray had already set off down the causeway, and was hammering at the convent door by the time Bartholomew caught up with him. While they waited for the door to be answered, Bartholomew fretted, wiping the rain from his face impatiently. Gray hopped from foot to foot in an attempt to keep warm. Bartholomew looked at the door, and, despite his preoccupation, saw that several tendrils of weed had begun to grow across it. The nuns were taking their isolation seriously.
The small grille in the door was. snapped open.
‘What?’ came a sharp voice.
“I want to speak with the Abbess,’ said Bartholomew.
His voice sounded calm, but his thoughts were in turmoil. Perhaps he would find Philippa safe and sound back in the convent, and all his worrying would be over.
‘Who are you?’ snapped the voice again.
‘Matthew Bartholomew from Michaelhouse.’
The air rang with the retort of the grille being slammed shut vigorously. They waited a few moments, but nothing happened.
Gray looked almost as disappointed as Bartholomew” I felt. ‘Oh, well. That is that,’ he said.
Abruptly, the grille shot open again, and Bartholomew could see that this time there were two people on the other side.
‘Well?’ came the first voice, impatient and aggressive.
Bartholomew was so surprised that the Abbess had come to the door, that he was momentarily stuck for words.
‘Is it Henry?’ the Abbess’s voice was deep for a woman, and she was tall enough that she had to bend her head slightly to look through the grille. Her reasons for coming to answer the door were suddenly clear to Bartholomew. She thought he was coming to bring her news of her nephews, the Oliver brothers.
‘Henry is well, Mother,’ Bartholomew replied. He moved nearer to the door so that he could see her more clearly.
‘Come no closer!’ she said, her voice hard and distant. “I hear that you walk freely among the contagion.
I do not want you to bring it here. What do you want of me?’
Bartholomew was taken aback by her hostility, but it was not the first time he had been repulsed because of his contact with plague victims, and doubtless it would not be the last.
“I came to ask whether you had news of Philippa Abigny,’ he said, watching the beautiful, but cold, face of the Abbess carefully.
Bartholomew saw a flash of anger in the ice-blue eyes. ‘How dare you come here to ask that when you stole her away from us! You have fouled her reputation by your actions.’
He had expected such a response, although he had not imagined it would be given with such venom. But he did not wish to get into an argument with the Abbess about whether he had sullied Philippa’s reputation, and so he tried to remain courteous.
“I am sorry if you think that,’ he said, ‘but you have not answered my question.’
‘Do you think I am so stupid as to answer?’ The Abbess virtually spat the words out. ‘You stole her away once. If I told you she was here, you would try to do the same again.’
Bartholomew shook his head. ‘You misunderstand my intentions. She came with me of her own free will, although I wished her to go back to where she would be protected from the plague. I only want to know that she is safe.’
‘Then you can continue in your agony of doubt,’ said the Abbess. ‘For I will not tell you of the news I have, nor of her whereabouts.’
‘Then do you know where she is?’ Bartholomew cried.
The Abbess stepped back from the grille and smiled at him with such coldness that Bartholomew felt himself shudder. He was suddenly reminded of the looks of hatred Henry used to throw at him. What a family, all consumed with hate and loathing! He saw a large shadow fall over the Abbess, and watched her turn towards it, the coldness evaporating from her smile in an instant.
Bartholomew glimpsed the hem of a highly decorated black cloak, and knew that Elias Oliver was there.
‘Where is she?’ Bartholomew shouted. The Abbess began to walk away, tall and regal, smiling at the tall figure beside her and ignoring Bartholomew. Bartholomew rattled the door in frustration, but the grille was slammed shut, and no amount of shouting and battering would induce the nuns to open it again.
Bartholomew slumped against the wall in defeat.
Gray sat down beside him.
‘Do not fret so,’ he said. “I have an idea.’
Bartholomew fought to regain control of his temper.
Did the wretched woman know where Philippa was, or was she merely pretending in order to have revenge for his ‘stealing’ her? He had had very little to do with the nuns of St Radegund’s. They lived secluded in their cloisters, and even when he had visited Philippa, he had seen little of the Priory or its inmates.
Gray stood up and set off round the Priory walls.
Bartholomew followed, sharply reminded of what had happened when he had last followed Gray around the walls of the convent. Gray slipped in and out of trees until he reached a point where the walls were totally obscured by thick undergrowth. Without hesitating, he led the way down a tiny path until he reached a door in the wall. He knocked twice, softly.
Bartholomew watched in amazement as the door opened and a young woman in a nun’s habit peeped out. Seeing Gray, she checked no one was looking, and stepped out, closing the door carefully behind her.
‘This is my cousin, Sister Emelda,’ said Gray, turning to Bartholomew.
The young woman smiled shyly at Bartholomew, and then looked at Gray. “I knew you would come!
I cannot stay long, though, or I will be missed.’ She glanced around her, as if expecting the spectre of the Abbess to appear through the trees. Gray nodded, and passed her something wrapped in a cloth. Emelda took it quickly, and secreted it in her robes. She reached up and kissed him quickly on the cheek. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
Gray flushed. ‘The doctor has something to ask you,’ he said, to cover his embarrassment.
Emelda smiled at Bartholomew again. “I know you from when you used to come to court Philippa. Poor philippa! She hated it here, especially in the winter months, and even more when you stopped coming.’
‘Is she here now?’ he asked.
Emelda quickly shook her head. ‘No. She has not been seen since you took her away. If she were here, I would know, because I do the cooking, and food is very carefully rationed. I would know if there were another person hidden away.’
‘Have you heard anything from her?’
Again, a shake of the head.
‘Do you know if the Abbess has heard of her whereabouts?’
‘She has not! And she is very angry about it’ Emelda giggled. ‘It is hard to keep secrets in a small community like this, and I know that she has those beastiy nephews of hers trying to find out where Philippa is. I hope you find her before they do.’
Inside the convent, a bell began to ring. ‘Terce,’ said Emelda. “I must go.’ She smiled at the two men and slipped quickly through the door again.
Gray led the way through the undergrowth and back to the road. Bartholomew was full of questions.
‘That was the door Philippa spoke about, the door that Sister Clement used when she went out to work among the sick. How did you know about it?’ he demanded.
‘And you did not tell me you had a cousin in the convent!
What was it you handed to her in that package?’
Gray raised his hand to slow the stream of questions, reminding Bartholomew unpleasantly of Wilson.
‘Emelda has been at St Radegund’s since we were children, and she told me about the gate. I never told you about her because you have never asked about my family. And what I gave her was my business.’
Gray knew he had overstepped his bounds before Bartholomew said a word. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he muttered.
“I will tell you, but you have to promise not to fly into a temper.’ “I will promise no such thing,’ said Bartholomew coldly.
Gray sighed. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘It is medicine for my mother. She is in there too. She took orders when I was old enough to look after myself, but now she has a wasting sickness and every week I take her medicine to relieve her pain.’
He looked defiantly at Bartholomew before continuing.
‘That was one of the reasons why I had to become apprenticed to you. I was making a lot of money nursing rich plague victims, but Jonas refused to sell me the medicine. I stole it from Roper when I was with him, and now I steal it from you.’
He stopped walking, and looked at Bartholomew belligerently, waiting. Bartholomew stopped too, and studied this strange young man. ‘Why did you not just ask me?’ he said gently.
‘Because you are always too busy, and because my mother comes from a rich priory and I thought you might rather give the medicine to the poor.’
Bartholomew was shocked. Did he really appear so insensitive to Gray? “I have never refused medicine to anyone, rich or poor,’ he said.
Gray suddenly lost his belligerence, and looked at the ground. “I know. I am sorry,’ he said in a quavering voice. ‘It just seemed easier to steal the medicine than to ask for it.’
Bartholomew realised that this was why Gray had persuaded him to go to St Radegund’s — not to ask about Philippa, but to deliver medicine for his mother, perhaps the strain of his mother’s illness accounted for his dreadful behaviour earlier that day. ‘Perhaps I could examine her…?’ he suggested.
Gray grimaced. “I wish you could, but that old bitch, the Abbess, will not let anyone in or out, and my mother is too ill to be moved now. The medicine is the only thing that helps.’
‘Which medicine is it?’ asked Bartholomew.
Gray told him. ‘My God, man!’ Bartholomew exploded. ‘Concentrated opiates can be a powerful poison! No wonder Jonas refused to sell it to you! It does have pain-relieving powers, but if someone gives her too much, she could die!’
Gray winced and took a step back. “I know,’ he said defensively, ‘but I know how much she can have.
I watched Roper giving it out to one of his sons when he had a similar wasting disease. I measure it out and put it in little packets for Emelda to give her.’
‘Oh, lord!’ groaned Bartholomew. ‘What have I done to deserve a student like this?’ He looked at Gray.
“I suppose you knew my supply was running low, and that I have been wondering where it had gone, and that is why you have chosen now to tell me?’
The answer was in the way Gray hung his head and refused to meet his eyes.
Bartholomew began walking again. Gray followed.
On the one hand Bartholomew was relieved that his medicines had not been the cause of Aelfrith’s death; on the other hand, he was disturbed that Gray had stolen such a powerful drug from him and prescribed it to someone.
‘You are a disreputable rascal, Gray. You lie and steal, and I cannot trust you. We will go to Jonas now, together, and replenish my stocks of this wretched stuff.
Then will measure it out for your mother, and we will go together and discuss with Emelda what else we can do to make your mother’s life more bearable. Medicine is not just giving out potions, you know. There are many other things that can be done to effect a cure or to relieve symptoms.’
Detecting that a lecture was about to begin, Gray skipped a little to catch up to him to listen properly. He would need to work hard to gain the trust of his teacher, but at least he knew Bartholomew was prepared to allow him to try.
Bartholomew, meanwhile, glanced at Gray walking beside him — a liar and a thief. He could not possibly confide in the student, and, excluding his family, there was not a single person left in the world whom he could trust.
It was dusk by the time Bartholomew and Gray arrived back at Michaelhouse. The rain had turned the beaten earth of the yard into a quagmire, and the honey-coloured stones of the buildings looked dismal and dirty in the fading light. Like a skull, Bartholomew thought suddenly, and the windows and doors were like eyeless sockets and broken teeth. He pinched himself hard, surprised at his morbid thoughts; he was becoming preoccupied with death.
As if to reinforce his thoughts, Father William emerged from the staircase leading to the plague room.
He was dragging something behind him, a long shape sewn into a blanket. Bartholomew went to help.
‘Who is it?’ he asked, taking a corner of the blanket and helping William to haul it through the mud. He wondered what he would have thought of this manhandling of the body of a colleague before the plague had struck and inured him to such things.
‘Gilbert,’ said William shortly, oblivious to the muddy puddles through which he dragged the body.
‘Like his master, isolation did not keep him from the Death.’
The stables, used as a mortuary for College plague victims, smelled so strongly of death and corruption that William backed out so fast he fell. Bartholomew went to help him up.
‘Holy Mother!’ the friar exclaimed, clambering to his feet with his wide sleeve firmly pressed to his nose.
‘Thank the Lord we have no horses! They would have died breathing that stench!’ He walked away as quickly as he could, turning to shout at Bartholomew, ‘Get rid of the corpses, Doctor. Do your job!’
Bartholomew went back into the stables, covering his nose and mouth with his cloak. William was right: the odour was terrible. The porter, hearing William’s shouting, came over to say that the carts had not been for the bodies for several days, and so it was not surprising that they were beginning to smell. Bartholomew tipped rushes from a hand-cart so he could begin to load the bodies onto it. The scholars would have to take their colleagues to the plague pit themselves if the official carts did not come.
Gray came to help, but gagged and complained so much that Bartholomew told him to wait outside.
Bartholomew hated what he was doing. These ungainly lumps sewn tightly into rough College blankets had been people he had known. There were five College students, two of the commoners, and now Gilbert. Eight College members who had been his friends and colleagues.
But there were nine shrouded bodies. He frowned and counted again, running through the names of the dead scholars one by one. He must have forgotten someone.
He took a body by the feet, and began to drag it to where Gray waited outside by the empty cart.
‘Who has died since we buried Wilson?’ Bartholomew asked.
Gray looked taken aback. “I thought you kept a note of all these things,’ he said. Seeing a flash of annoyance pass across Bartholomew’s face, he recited the names.
‘Eight,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Who died just before Wilson?’
Gray named the others, nineteen in all. He thought he saw which way the conversation was leading, assumed he was being criticised, and began to object. ‘You told me to take them to the plague pit, and I did. Ask Cynric. He helped. We took all of them!’
Bartholomew held up his hand to quell Gray’s indignant objections. “I believe you,’ he said. ‘But we seem to have an extra body here now.’
Gray looked at the one Bartholomew still held by the feet. ‘One of the townspeople probably slipped it in here so that we would take it to the pits with the others,’ he suggested.
‘Unlikely,’ said Bartholomew, ‘unless they stole one of our blankets as well.’
Gray and Bartholomew looked at each other for a moment, and then back to the stables. Bartholomew began to drag the body back inside again.
‘This had best be done out of sight,’ he said over his shoulder to Gray. “I do not want anyone to see what I am going to do. Will you bring a lamp?’
Gray was gone only briefly, returning with a lamp and a needle and thread. He lit the lamp and closed the door against prying eyes. ‘You cut the shrouds open, and I will sew them up,’ he said, swallowing hard as he steeled himself for the grisly task.
Bartholomew clapped him on the shoulder, and made a small cut along the seam of the first body. It was Gilbert. He sat for a moment, looking at his face, more peaceful than most of his patients, but blackened with the plague nevertheless. Gray, kneeling next to him, nudged him with his elbow.
‘Hurry up,’ he urged, ‘or someone will come and ask what we are doing.’
He began stitching the blanket back together while Bartholomew moved to the next one. It was one of the law students who had been studying under Wilson. He resisted the urge to think about the scholars as their faces appeared under the coarse blanket-shrouds, and tried to concentrate on the task in hand. The third was another student, and the fourth one of the old commoners. As he came to the fifth, he paused. The blanket was exactly the same as the others, but there was an odd quality about the body inside that he could not define. Instinctively, he knew it was the one that did not belong to Michaelhouse.
Carefully he slit the stitches down one side of the blanket, noting that they were less neat than the others he had cut. He peeled it back and cried out in horror, leaping backwards and almost knocking the lamp over.
‘What? What is it?’ Gray gasped, unnerved by Bartholomew’s white face. He went to look at the body, but Bartholomew pulled him back so he should not see.
They went to the door for some fresh air, away from the stench of the bodies. After a few moments, Bartholomew began to lose the unreal feeling he had had when he looked into the decomposed face of Augustus, and rubbed his hands on his robe to get rid of their clamminess. Gray waited anxiously.
Taking a last deep breath of clean air, Bartholomew turned to Gray. ‘It is Augustus,’ he said. Gray looked puzzled for a moment, and then his face cleared.
‘Ah! The commoner who disappeared after you had declared him dead!’ He looked at the stables. ‘He is dead now, is he?’
‘He was dead then,’ snapped Bartholomew, trying to control the shaking of his hands. ‘And he is very dead now.’
Bartholomew led Gray back inside the stables again, noticing how the student’s eyes kept edging fearfully over to the bundle that was Augustus. ‘You must not tell anyone of this,’ Bartholomew said. “I do not understand what is happening, why his body has been put here now after all this time. But I think he was murdered, and his murderer must still be alive or Augustus’s body would still be hidden. We must be very careful.’
Gray nodded, his usually cheerful face sombre.
‘Just sew him back up again, and let us pretend to anyone who is watching that we have not noticed the extra one,’ he said, going to the door and trying to peer out through the gaps in the wood.
It was possibly already too late for that, Bartholomew thought, if the murderer had seen them take Gilbert’s body back inside again once they had realised that something was amiss. He collected his thoughts. Bartholomew could see why Augustus’s body had reappeared. It had been no secret that Wilson had spent some time talking alone to Bartholomew before he died. The murderer had assumed, correctly, that Wilson would tell him about the trap-door to the attic — where Augustus had probably lain since his body had been taken. That would explain the unpleasant smell that Bartholomew had noticed there.
If, as Bartholomew supposed, the body had been hidden in the passageway, Wilson would have been unlikely to have found it because he would have no reason to search a passageway he knew was blocked off. Unless, he thought, Wilson had known, and had deliberately told Bartholomew about the trap-door, knowing that he would find Augustus. What had Wilson said? Discover who in the College knew about the trap-door and he would find the murderer?
Bartholomew rubbed a hand over his face. He realised that once the murderer became aware that Bartholomew knew of the trap-door and would be likely to search the attic, he would have to dispose of the corpse that had lain there for several months. In many ways, it was an ideal time. When better to dispose of a body than when there were bodies of so many others to be taken away?
Had William not complained, then Bartholomew might well have left the bodies to be collected by the dead-cart the following day, and no one would have known that one of them had not died of the plague at all.
So the person who had brought Augustus’s body to the stables must also have been the person who had killed him. It could not have been Aelfrith, since he was long dead. It could not have been Wilson, because Augustus’s body had been placed in the stable after he had died — and Bartholomew was certain Gray was not lying to him about removing the previous corpses. Was it Abigny? Had he come back from wherever he was hiding when he had heard that Bartholomew knew about the trap-door? Could it have been Swynford, back from his plague-free haven? Was it Michael, who had reacted so oddly at Augustus’s death? Was it William, who had prompted him to look at the bodies in the first place, or Alcote, skulking in his room?
Gray was handing him the needle and thread so he could sew up Augustus’s shroud again. But Bartholomew had one more task he needed to do.
‘Start taking the others out to the cart,’ he said. “I need to take a closer look.’
Gray’s eyes widened in horror, but he began to drag the bodies outside to the cart as Bartholomew had instructed. Bartholomew knelt down by Augustus, and slit the shroud down the side, pulling it back to reveal the grey, desiccated body. Augustus was still dressed in the nightshirt he had been wearing when Bartholomew had last seen his body, but it was torn down the middle to reveal the terrible mutilations underneath. Bartholomew felt anger boil inside him. Whoever had taken the body had slashed it open, pulling out entrails, and slicing deeply into the neck and throat.
All Bartholomew could assume was that Augustus had led the murderer to believe he had swallowed that wretched ring of Sir John’s, and the murderer had desecrated his body to find it. Bartholomew was beginning to feel sick. Augustus’s blackened and dried entrails had been stuffed crudely back into his body with a total disregard for his dignity. The horrific mess made Bartholomew wonder whether the murderer would ever have found the ring anyway.
He had seen enough. Hastily, he began to resew the bundle, hiding the terribly mangled body from his sight — and from Gray, who was becoming bolder and inching forward. Bartholomew looked at Augustus’s face. The warmth of the attic in the top of the house in late summer must have sucked the moisture from the body, for the face was dry and wizened rather than rotten. The skin had peeled back from the lips, leaving the teeth exposed, and the eyes were sunken, but it was unmistakably Augustus.
As Bartholomew covered up the face, he whispered a farewell. His mind flashed back to Augustus’s funeral back in September, when a coffin filled with bags of earth had been reverently laid to rest in the churchyard. He sat back on his heels, staring down at the shapeless bundle in front of him, and wondered if the requiem mass said for him by Aelfrith had truly laid his soul to rest.
Bartholomew had often looked at the simple wooden cross in the churchyard, and wondered about the body that should have lain beneath it. At least in the plague pit the old man would rest in hallowed ground and no one would come again to desecrate his body.