Bartholomew had barely returned to Michaelhouse when a messenger arrived with a note from Edith saying that she had hurt her arm. She said it was very painful, and asked that he come to tend it as soon as possible. A shout from the commoners’ window made him look up.
‘Father Jerome is dying,’ the Benedictine called, ‘and he is asking for you.’
Bartholomew was torn with indecision. Should he go to the dying man or his sister? As if in answer to his prayers, Gray came sauntering through the gates.
Bartholomew strode over to him in relief. Gray could go to Edith; a sore arm did not sound too serious.
Gray listened attentively to Bartholomew’s instructions, secretly gratified that Bartholomew was allowing him to attend his sister: he was not to try to set the arm if it was broken; he was to make sure that if there was a wound, it was clean before he bound it; he was only to use water that had been taken fresh from the spring; he was to check carefully for other injuries and fever; and he was to give her one measure only — and here Gray was subjected to a stern look from his teacher — of a sleeping draught if she complained of too much pain.
Proudly carrying Bartholomew’s bag of medicines, Gray set off at ajaunty pace towards the High Street, while Bartholomew hurried back to the commoners’ room.
Father Jerome was indeed dying. He had already been anointed, and his breath was little more than a reedy whisper. Bartholomew was surprised that, after his long and spirited struggle, his end should come so fast. Almost as fast as that of Henry Oliver, who had died several hours before.
William came and Jerome confessed to enticing Montfitchet to drink the wine that had been left in the commoners’ room the night of Augustus’s murder, even though Monfitchet had said he had drunk enough already. Without Jerome’s encouragement to drink, Montfitchet might still be alive. Bartholomew thought it was more likely that Montfitchet would have been dispatched in the same way as Brother Paul, but held his silence. Finally, Jerome laid back, his face serene, and waited for death. He asked if Bartholomew would stay with him until he died. Bartholomew agreed, hoping that Edith was not seriously hurt, and that Gray would not attempt anything beyond his capabilities.
In less than two hours, it was over, and Bartholomew helped the monks to stitch Jerome into a blanket.
Bartholomew was torn between grief and impotent anger that he had not been able to do anything other than sit at the sick man’s bedside. He laid Jerome gently in the stable next to Henry Oliver, and stalked out of the College towards the church. Everything seemed grey to Bartholomew. The sky was a solid iron-colour, even though it was not raining, and the houses and streets seemed drab and shabby. The town stank, and the mud that formed the street was impregnated with bits of rotting food and human waste. He made his way through it to St Michael’s, where he paced around the church for a while, trying to bring his emotions under control.
After a while, he grew calmer and began to think about Philippa. She was safe — something for which he had been hoping desperately ever since Abigny had fled from Edith’s house. He wondered again whether he had perhaps been over-hasty the previous night, and whether he should have shown more understanding for Abigny’s point of view. But he had been exhausted by his eavesdropping excursion in the cold, and still shocked to learn that the Stanmores had been involved. He wondered where Philippa had gone, and felt a sudden urge to talk with her, and to resolve the questions about her disappearance that still jangled in his mind. The best way to find her would be through her brother, who would be most likely to seek a temporary bed at Bene’t’s until he deemed it safe to return to his own room.
Bartholomew set off down the High Street, his mind filled with unanswered questions. As he approached Bene’t’s, he shuddered, thinking about the hours he had spent perched on the window-sill above the filthy yard. He had scarcely finished knocking on the door when it was answered by a student with greasy red hair.
The student said that Abigny was out and he did not know when he was likely to return, but offered to let Bartholomew wait. Bartholomew assented reluctantly, not wanting to be inside Bene’t’s, but his desire to see Philippa was strong. He expected to be shown into the hall, but a glimpse through the half-closed door indicated that the students were engaged in an illicit game of dice, and would not want him peering over their shoulders. He was shown into a small, chilly room on an upper floor, and abandoned with cheerful assurances that Abigny would not be long.
He was beginning to consider leaving Abigny a note asking him to go to Michaelhouse, when he heard the door open and close again. He hurried from the chamber and peered down the stairwell.
But it was not Abigny climbing the stairs, it was Stephen, preceded by Burwell. Bartholomew was on the verge of announcing himself when he heard his name mentioned. He froze, leaning across the handrail, his whole body suddenly inexplicably tense.
‘… he is too near the truth now,’ Stephen was saying, ‘and he does not believe in the Oxford plot. I could see in his face he was doubtful.’
‘Damn,’ said Burwell, pausing to look back at Stephen. ‘Now what do we do?’
‘Kill him,’ came a third voice, oddly familiar to Bartholomew. ‘It will not be difficult. Send him another note purporting to be from Edith and have him ambushed on the Trumpington road.’
Heart thumping, Bartholomew ducked back into his chilly chamber as Burwell reached the top of the stairs. There would be no need for an ambush: they could kill him now, in Bene’t Hostel. Bartholomew felt his stomach churn and his hands were clammy with sweat as he stood in the semi-darkness. To his infinite relief, the three men entered the room next to his, closing the door firmly behind them. Leaning his sweat-drenched forehead on the cold wall for a moment to calm himself, Bartholomew eased out of his chamber, and slipped along the hallway to listen outside the other door. It was old and sturdily built, and he had to strain to hear what was being said.
‘Another death at Michaelhouse might look suspicious,’
Stephen was saying.
‘On the contrary,’ came the voice of the third man, smooth and convincing. ‘It might improve our cause immeasurably. We have sown the seeds of an idea into the minds of these gullible people — that Michaelhouse is a rotten apple. What better way to have that idea confirmed than yet another untimely death there? What families will send their sons to Michaelhouse where the Fellows die with such appalling regularity? And then our Oxford plot will seem all the more real, and all the more terrifying.’
Bartholomew fought to control the weak feeling in his knees and tried to bring his jumbled thoughts into order. Had he been right all along in his uncertainty about the Oxford plot? He had never accepted the concept fully, as Aelfrith, Wilson, and even Sir John had done. Could there be a plot within a plot? The group of hostel men who had gone to Stanmore had fed him lies about a plan by Oxford scholars to bring down Cambridge. Or had they? What was Stephen doing there?
And who was the third man whose voice was so familiar?
It was not Stanmore or Richard. Was it a Fellow from Michaelhouse? He racked his brain, trying to identify the smooth intonation, but it eluded him.
‘What about Oswald?’ Stephen was saying.
‘Now there is a real problem,’ came the familiar voice. ‘Neville Stayne was foolish to have mentioned Bartholomew in front of Oswald. Now if anything happens to him, it will immediately arouse his suspicions, and all we have worked for will have been for nothing.’
‘We cannot allow that, not after all we have done!’
Stephen said emphatically. ‘Five Michaelhouse men have died for this, and we have carefully nurtured so many rumours. We have invested months in this!’
‘Easy,’ came the reassuring tones of Burwell. ‘We will not allow your brother and his tenacious in-law to interfere in our business. Too much is at stake.’
Stephen appeared to have accepted Burwell’s assurance, for he made no further comment. The third man continued to speak, outlining a plot that would have Bartholomew and Stanmore ambushed together.
Bartholomew clenched his fists, his instincts screaming at him to throw open the door and choke the life from Stephen’s miserable, lying throat. But that would serve no purpose other than to allow Burwell and the third man to kill Bartholomew. And then they would be able to slay Stanmore.
Bartholomew was so preoccupied with his feelings of loathing for Stephen that he almost missed the sound of footsteps coming towards the door. Startled, he bolted back into the other room, wincing as his haste made him careless and he knocked a candle from its holder.
The three men did not hear, however, and stood in the doorway conversing in low tones.
‘Tonight it is, then,’ came the familiar voice.
Bartholomew risked opening the door a crack to see his face, but he had already started off down the stairs, and all Bartholomew saw was the hem of a cloak.
Bartholomew itched to be away to warn Stanmore of the impending threat on their lives, but Stephen and Burwell lingered at the top of the stairs, discussing the possibility of increasing hostel rents. Bartholomew silently urged them to conclude their tedious conversation so that he could leave. A dreadful thought occurred to him. Supposing Abigny arrived and found him? Then his death would be immediate, for how could they let him go after what he had heard? And, Bartholomew thought, Abigny must be involved, for how could he spend so much time at Bene’t’s and be unaware of what was happening? ‘Here.’ Bartholomew heard the tinkle of coins as money was passed from Burwell to Stephen, followed by the rustle of cloth as Stephen secreted them in his cloak.
‘This is important to you,’ said Burwell suddenly.
‘More than just wealth.’
Bartholomew risked looking at them through the crack in the door. He saw Stephen shrug, but noted that he was unable to meet Burwell’s eyes. “I have worked for my brother all my life,’ he said, ‘but it will not be me who will inherit the business when he dies. It will be Richard.
And what then? What of my children? The Death has made it necessary for me to consider alternative sources of income.’
Burwell looked surprised. ‘But I understand that young Richard is anxious to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a leech.’
Stephen faltered for a moment. ‘People change,’ he said. ‘And I do not, cannot, rely on my nephew’s charity for the rest of my life. What if I were to be taken by the pestilence? I must leave some funds to safeguard my children. It is no longer viable to rely on relationships and friendships to secure a future. Only this works.’ He held a gold coin between his thumb and forefinger and raised it for Burwell to see.
‘And you would sacrifice your brother for this?’ mused Burwell. In the shadows of his chamber, Bartholomew closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.
‘Yes,’ said Stephen softly, ‘because by this time tomorrow I might be in the death pits. What if Oswald and I were to die, and Richard? How could the womenfolk maintain the business? Even if they were allowed to try, and that in itself is unlikely because the Guilds would not permit it, they would be easy prey for all manner of rogues. They would be gutter fodder within the month.’
He turned to face Burwell. “I do not relish what I am about to do, but my future and the future of my children is more important than Oswald.’
Bartholomew listened as their voices faded down the stairs. He was almost beside himself with anxiety. Where had the third man gone while Stephen and Burwell chattered? Was Oswald already in danger? The two men stopped to talk again by the front door before finally taking their leave of each other. Bartholomew forced himself to wait several moments before hurrying down the stairs. Looking down the High Street, he saw Abigny walking towards him. Bartholomew ignored him, and fled in the opposite direction towards Stanmore’s shop.
He raced through the gates into Stanmore’s yard, his feet skidding as he fought to keep his balance on the slippery mud. He was about to go into the house to seek Stanmore out when he saw him entering the stable with a tall figure that looked very familiar. It was Robert Swynford.
Bartholomew was relieved beyond measure. Good.
Now Swynford was back, he could take over the College, and Alcote would be spared being discredited, or worse, at the hands of the hostels. Breathlessly, Bartholomew ran over to the stable, pushed the door open and staggered inside. Stanmore stood just inside the door with his back to Bartholomew, but turned when he crashed in. Bartholomew’s stomach flipped over when he saw it was not Stanmore at all, but Stephen. Bartholomew cursed himself for a fool as he realised Stephen was still wearing Oswald’s cloak. Stephen and Swynford seemed as disconcerted to see him as Bartholomew Was to see Stephen, but Swynford recovered almost immediately and shook Bartholomew by the hand, saying how pleased he was to be back in the town and asking how the College was faring.
Bartholomew, smiling politely, began to back out of the stable, but Stephen was quicker. He made a sudden movement with his hand, and Bartholomew found a long-bladed dagger pointing at him. Bartholomew gazed in panic before trying to bluff it out: Stephen did not know Bartholomew had heard him speaking with Burwell and the other man at Bene’t’s. ‘What are you doing? Where is Oswald?’
‘At Trumpington seeing to Edith. Which is where you were supposed to be,’ Stephen said coldly. ‘Why did you not go?’ “I had to stay with Father Jerome. I sent Gray,’
Bartholomew replied, bewildered.
Stephen laughed without humour. ‘You have been a problem to us almost every step of the way. I tried hard to keep you out of all this, but you have been remarkably uncooperative!’
Bartholomew tried to move away as the knife waved menacingly close, but he was hemmed in by walls on one side, and Stephen and Swynford on the other.
“I thought we had agreed to be honest with each other this morning,’ Bartholomew said, looking from Swynford to Stephen.
The knife waved again, and Bartholomew felt it catch on his robe. He gazed at Stephen in horror.
‘Was it you?’ he whispered. ‘Was it you who killed Sir John and the others?’
Stephen grinned nastily and looked at Swynford, who eyed Bartholomew impassively.
‘We cannot allow him to interfere any more than he has already,’ Swynford said. ‘There is too much to lose.’
Stephen nodded, and Bartholomew wondered whether they meant to kill him there and then in the stable.
Stephen obviously thought so, for he took a step towards Bartholomew, tightening his grip on the knife.
‘Not here!’ snapped Swynford. ‘What will your brother say if he finds blood in his stable and the physician missing? Put him downstairs.’
‘Downstairs?’said Stephen, lunging at Bartholomew, who had made a slight move to one side. ‘Are you serious?’
‘There are rooms with stout doors,’ said Swynford.
‘We must plan his death carefully or the Bishop might discover some streak of courage in his yellow belly and order some kind of enquiry.’
Bartholomew was lost. Swynford the murderer? He looked desperately towards the stable door, but Stephen guessed what was in his mind, and prodded him hard with the knife. ‘You should have gone to see Edith,’ he said, edging Bartholomew towards the end of the stable.
‘Oswald and Richard went, and they will be safely out of the way until our meeting has finished.’
Stephen shoved Bartholomew against the back wall, while Swynford cleared some straw from the floor, and indicated that Bartholomew should pull up the trap-door he had uncovered. Bartholomew did not move. Stephen moved towards him, brandishing the knife threateningly, but Bartholomew still did not move.
‘Open it,’ said Swynford impatiently.
‘Open it yourself,’ said Bartholomew. If they did not want Oswald Stanmore to find blood on his stable floor, what did he have to fear from Stephen’s knife?
“I do not want to kill you here,’ Swynford said, as his cold, hard eyes flashed, ‘but I will if necessary. Blood can be cleaned away, and a knife wound can always be hidden with other injuries, as you have probably guessed was the case with Sir John. Now, unless you wish your death to be long and painful, open the door.’
Bartholomew slowly bent to pull open the trap-door.
Stanmore had shown him the small storerooms and passages under the stables when he had been a boy. They had been built by a previous merchant to hide goods from the King’s tax-collectors. As far as Bartholomew knew, Stanmore had never used the underground rooms, and they had lain empty for years.
The door was made of stone, and was heavy.
Bartholomew hauled at it and stood back as he let it fall backwards with a crash that echoed all over the yard. Stephen and Swynford looked at each other.
‘That was rash,’ said Swynford. ‘One more trick like that and I will kill you myself.’
Swynford took a lamp from a shelf, and lit it. He held out a hand for Bartholomew to precede him down the wooden stairs that disappeared into the darkness below.
Bartholomew climbed down cautiously, wondering if this were to be his last journey. Swynford followed him, and Stephen brought up the rear.
Bartholomew was prodded along one of the musty corridors and told to open the door to the largest chamber. To his surprise, it was already lit with candles and filled with people. A hard shove in the small of his back sent him stumbling into the middle of the room.
‘We have something of a problem, gentlemen,’ said Swynford calmly.
‘Why did you bring him here?’ It was no surprise to Bartholomew to see Burwell and Yaxley there, standing shoulder to shoulder with Neville Stayne from Mary’s Hostel. Jocelyn of Ripon, too, was present, his face creased into its perpetual scowl.
‘What did you expect us to do?’ snapped Stephen.
‘Send him home? We did our best to make sure he was out of the way. It is not our fault he failed to answer a call of mercy from his own sister!’
‘What do we do with him now?’ asked Burwell.
‘We will keep him here until I think of a way to get rid of him that cannot be traced back to us,’ said Swynford.
‘We have done it before, and we can do it again.’
‘Then it was you who killed Sir John and poisoned Aelfrith!’ exclaimed Bartholomew.
‘No. That was me.’ It was the voice he had heard at Bene’t’s but could not identify. Bartholomew spun round and looked into the face of Gregory Colet.
Bartholomew was rendered speechless, and could only gaze dumbly as Colet sauntered round the room and perched himself on the edge of the table. He saw Bartholomew’s expression of disbelief, and laughed.
“I was convincing as the drooling fool, wasn’t I?’ he said, crossing his legs and looking at Bartholomew.
You were quite a nuisance, though. You would insist on visiting me when I had a great many other things to do. And I had to keep wearing these,’ he said, pulling distastefully at his filthy clothes. ‘You were supposed to have given up on me and left me to my own devices.’
‘Why?’ whispered Bartholomew, looking at his friend. ‘What brought you to this?’
Swynford snapped his fingers impatiently. ‘Enough of this! We have better things to do than to satisfy the curiosity of this meddling fool.’
Bartholomew was bundled out of the room and into a long chamber down the corridor by Yaxley, Jocelyn, and a man he had seen at Garret Hostel. They made him sit down on the floor at the far end and backed out of the room, slamming the door behind them. Bartholomew heard bolts shooting across on the other side. He sat in the darkness trying to comprehend what had happened to him. Stephen and Colet, whom he had believed to be friends, were so deeply embroiled in whatever foul plans were afoot, that they were prepared to kill him for them. And Colet had killed Sir John and Aelfrith!
He leaned his head back against the wall, and tried to think rationally. But it would do him no good to speculate. What he needed to do was to think of a way out. There was no window in the chamber and it was pitch black. Bartholomew felt his way along the walls, searching for other possible exits or even a weapon.
There was nothing. He discovered there were several large crates in the room, but other than that the room was empty. He pushed against the door with all his strength, but it was made of thick oak bound with iron, and he knew from his childhood visits to the cellars that there were two huge bolts and a stout bar on the outside.
He sat down again despondently. Unbidden, an image of Philippa came into his mind. Was she involved too? Would she be the one to offer to make his death look like an accident? He leaned back against the wall again and closed his eyes. He could hear raised voices from the room down the corridor. He was glad they were arguing with each other: such an unholy alliance should not be free from dissent and strife. The meeting did not last long, and it was no more than half an hour later when it finished and he could hear people leaving.
The heavy stone trap-door was dropped into place with a hollow thump, and Bartholomew’s prison was as dark and silent as the grave. He found it strange at first, and then disconcerting. Michaelhouse was usually noisy during the day, with scholars coming and going, and at night there was always some sound — students debating in low voices, someone’s snoring through open window shutters, or footsteps on cobbled paths leading to the kitchens or the latrines. Bartholomew was aware that he could not even hear the bells that called parishioners to church or scholars to lectures and meals. In a sudden panic, he crashed towards the door and hammered on it until his fists were bruised and his voice was hoarse from yelling. he forced himself to pace out the room in an effort to calm himself, counting the number of steps, and then exploring every unevenness in the earthen walls. In one of the crates he found some bales of cloth and wrapped them round him against the chill of the room. When he felt as though he had mastered his panic, he perched on a chest, tucked his feet up underneath him, and began to review what he had learned. At least he would not go to his death confused and demanding answers.
He knew the men involved: Colet, Burwell, Yaxley, Stayne, Jocelyn, the man from Garret Hostel, Stephen, and Swynford. Swynford was clearly in charge: even Colet had obeyed his instructions. Jocelyn obviously had no intention of founding a grammar school in Ripon, but had been imported by his kinsman into Michaelhouse to help him in his plotting. Stephen’s role was probably to encourage Stanmore and the other merchants to maintain their support of the bogus hostels group, while the money they invested was pocketed by Swynford. With a start he remembered Burwell telling him that he had heard of Philippa’s flight from Stephen, although there was no reason why they should have known each other well enough to exchange gossip. And Colet? Colet, by his own admission, had been the one to murder Sir John and Aelfrith. Did he also kill Paul and Augustus, and drug the commoners? And how far was the Abbess of St Radegund’s involved? While Abigny’s story had a ring of truth to it, the blacksmith had been paid to warn Bartholomew in a purse from Bene’t Hostel.
Bartholomew wrapped his arms around his body more tightly for warmth, and pressed on with his reasoning. It would probably have been easy to kill Sir John. Cynric had seen him leaving the College after he had eaten dinner with Aelfrith and Bartholomew, probably called to a meeting connected with the alleged Oxford plot. Bartholomew and Stanmore had received false messages from Swynford and his clan, and Colet had probably sent a similar one to Sir John. Sir John had suspected something was amiss, however, because he had taken the precaution of leaving the seal behind. He had gone to the meeting by the mill, a place where few went after dark, where he was murdered by Colet. Swynford had indicated that the fatal wound had been hidden by the injuries sustained when Sir John was crushed by the water-wheel. Colet had been unable to find the seal, and so had exchanged Sir John’s clothes for another set probably the ones he had worn himself as a disguise when he went to meet Sir John with the intention of killing him.
But if the Oxford plot was a sham, why did Colet want the seal? Bartholomew rubbed his arms hard, trying to force some warmth into them. He supposed it was to add credence to the Oxford plot, to show that the business was worth killing over. He wondered what the Oxford scholars thought about the business. He had no doubt that the rumours had reached them, and that they must be as mystified by the whole affair as were the Cambridge men. Perhaps they had even initiated their own investigation, word of which would filter back to Cambridge, where it would be used by Swynford to underline further still that something untoward was happening.
So when did it all start? Bartholomew thought back to what Aelfrith had told him about the uncannily high number of deaths of Fellows in the Colleges last year:
Aelfrith’s friend who had drowned in the Peterhouse fish-ponds, supposedly in his cups; the Master of King’s Hall who was said to have fallen down the stairs; two deaths from food poisoning; and four cases of summer ague. So Aelfrith’s assumptions had been correct, and the Fellows had been murdered by Swynford and his associates so they could start a rumour discrediting the Colleges and blaming Oxford for the deaths. Aelfrith’s friend had been drowned, the Master of King’s Hall hanged, and the others probably poisoned. He thought of the two young men he had attended as they lay dying from bad oysters. He closed his eyes in the darkness as he recalled who had been with him. Colet. Colet had been dining at Clare that night, and it had been Colet who had called Bartholomew so it would seem that he had made every effort to save their lives. Clever Colet, using Bartholomew as a shield so no blame for the deaths should ever fall on him. And of course, who better to have access to subtle poisons, and to know how to use them, than a physician?
These deaths, it seemed, had been sufficient to force the merchants into action. When the so-called hostels group was formed, Stanmore had said that the deaths had stopped. The merchants must have felt that their financial contributions were doing some good. But why kill Sir John and the others if the merchants had fallen for the ploy and were paying their money? Bartholomew rolled the possibilities through his mind. The merchants must have grown complacent, secure in the knowledge that they had done their bit for the town. Perhaps news of the plague took their minds away from the University.
The deaths at Michaelhouse would serve to show them that the business was far from over.
But what of Augustus? Who had killed him? It was obvious why: Wilson had told him that Sir John had visited Augustus before attending the fatal meeting that Bartholomew now knew was with Colet, and half the world suspected that the seal had been hidden in his room. The first attempt on Augustus’s life had failed, and the killer had returned three nights later. Bartholomew supposed that Augustus’s room could hardly be searched with Augustus in it, and he had been murdered to secure his silence. Poor Augustus had given the killer reason to believe he had swallowed the seal. The killer must have hidden in the attic when Alexander came to bring Paul and Augustus some wine. He must have been watching Bartholomew from his hiding place, wondering what he had been doing when he examined Augustus’s body and looked under the bed. When Aelfrith had come to keep vigil, it had been an easy thing to knock him on the head and drag Augustus into the attic. Wilson had come then to begin his own search for the seal, and he too had fled to the attic when disturbed, first knocking Bartholomew down the stairs. How crowded the attic had been at that point: the killer, Wilson, and Augustus’s body.
But who had actually killed Augustus? And how?
There had been no signs of poisoning or violence, but the expression of abject terror on his dead face confirmed that his death had not been natural. All the Fellows and commoners had alibis for the time Augustus had died, so it must have been an outsider. Could it have been Colet again? Bartholomew thought about it, and decided there was no other plausible possibility. Whoever had sliced Augustus apart to investigate his innards had possessed some degree of surgical skill. The incision was crude and brutal, but it would take a physician’s knowledge to search the inside of a corpse, and perhaps a physician’s nerve and stomach.
So Colet must have determined, with the help of Swynford and perhaps jocelyn, to search Augustus’s room for the elusive seal while Michaelhouse scholars were at Wilson’s feast. Poor Brother Paul was too ill to attend, something that Colet had probably not anticipated. So, Paul was dispatched as a precaution against him crying out. Bartholomew screwed up his eyes in thought. When he had gone to check Augustus, he had heard Paul cough, but now he could not be sure that it had not been Colet, standing next to Paul’s bed, and imitating the hack of an old man to prevent Bartholomew from checking on hirn too. But even if Bartholomew had looked at Paul, what then? He would have seen exactly what he had seen the following morning — Paul with his blanket tightly tucked around him hiding his face, the spilled blood, and the knife in his stomach.
Drugged wine was left in the commoners’ room, lest they returned from the feast too early. And Jocelyn had told Bartholomew that it had been his idea to drink Wilson’s health with the wine he had found on the table. He must have known it was drugged, and also that the others were too drunk to question how the wine had come to be there so conveniently. How Jocelyn must have gloated at the ease with which that part of the plan had gone. Montfitchet did not want to drink because he felt ill, but, luckily for Jocelyn, Father Jerome persuaded him, unwittingly bringing about his death. D’Evene, who had a bad reaction to wine, had also been persuaded to drink.
Bartholomew stood and began jumping up and down on the spot, trying to force some warmth into his legs. As he considered the information he had, it was easy to see what Colet had done. He must have hidden in Swynford’s room. Swynford was the only Fellow to have a room to himself, so no one would have seen Colet once he had slipped into the College in the commotion before the feast. He could then have used the second trap-door in the hallway outside Swynford’s room to gain access to the attic, and gone from there to Augustus’s room.
But how did Colet know about the doors to the attic? Wilson had said they were a secret passed from Master to Master. Wilson himself did not know about them until he read about them in the box from the Chancellor.
Try as he might, Bartholomew could come up with no reason why Swynford or Colet should know, and he felt his carefully constructed argument begin to crumble.
He could not imagine that Sir John would have broken trust by telling Swynford, and Swynford had not been at Michaelhouse long enough to have known the previous Master. Exhausted by his thinking and the events of the day, Bartholomew finally slipped into a restless doze huddled in a corner.
Bartholomew lost track of the time he was kept in his underground tomb. Once the door opened briefly and some bread, salted beef, and watered ale were shoved inside, but it occurred so quickly that by the time Bartholomew realised what had happened, the door had been closed and he was alone again. He sniffed at the food suspiciously, wondering if Colet meant to poison him, but he was hungry and thirsty enough to throw caution to the wind.
He thought about what his death might mean. Colet had said in Bene’t Hostel that it would fit nicely into their plan, and would reinforce the notion that something was sadly amiss at Michaelhouse. What of Stanmore then? He would never accept Bartholomew’s murder, no matter how cunningly disguised. He would try to seek out Bartholomew’s killer, would confront members of the hostel committee, and generally make problems until he, too, was dispatched. And then Richard would guess something untoward had happened, and perhaps start an inexperienced, clumsy investigation of his own.
Where would it all end? Would Stanmore’s colleagues be suspicious of three accidental deaths in one family?
Would they, too, start to look into matters?
Bartholomew recalled with a pang why he had been captured in the first place — trying to warn Stanmore that Stephen and Burwell planned to kill him. He cursed himself again for his ineptitude. He had seen Stephen wearing that cloak before. But the more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that Stanmore would be safe until his own body was found. Stanmore had no reason to be suspicious of Bartholomew’s disappearance — since the plague had come he had kept such irregular hours that no one knew for certain where he was — and the hostel group was unlikely to cut off a source of funding in Stanmore before it became absolutely necessary.
He was dozing in the corner when the room was suddenly filled with light that hurt his eyes. There was noise too — shouting and arguing. Through painfully narrowed eyes, Bartholomew saw Swynford outlined in the doorway, flanked by a burly porter from Rudde’ s Hostel who was armed with a loaded crossbow. Irrelevantly, Bartholomew remembered Colet telling him that the porter was a veteran of the King’s wars in France before exchanging a soldier’s career for a more sedentary life keeping law and order in one of the University’s rowdier establishments.
Swynford held up the torch and the light fell on Bartholomew. Bartholomew squinted, wondering if they had come to murder him. He struggled to his feet, dazed and clumsy, but prepared to sell his life dearly. Swynford glanced at Bartholomew disinterestedly, and gestured to someone outside. Bartholomew had a fleeting glimpse of Brother Michael, firmly in the grasp of Jocelyn and Colet, before he was hurled into the room.
‘Company for you, Physician,’ said Swynford. ‘Now you have someone with whom you can discuss what you think you know of us.’ He turned to leave. Bartholomew, savouring the sound of voices after so long alone, was strangely reluctant to let them go. He thought quickly, wondering how he might detain them.
‘Gregory!’ he called, trying to disentangle himself from Michael who had stumbled into him. ‘Did you kill Augustus and Paul?’
‘Yes and no,’ replied Colet smoothly, ignoring Swynford’s look of disapproval. “I killed Paul. He kept calling out for someone to bring him water. He was a nuisance, and had to be silenced. But I did not kill Augustus, he killed himself.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Bartholomew. ‘There were no marks of violence on him.’
‘So that was what you were doing with his body,’ said Colet. “I wondered what you were up to. I had planned to kill the old fool, and had my knife ready to slip between his ribs as he slept. But he was awake when I entered his room, and I saw him swallow something. I was wearing a black cloak and hood, and I really think he believed I was Death coming for him. He just keeled over and died of fright.’
Bartholomew remembered Wilson’s dismissive words when Bartholomew told him he had been trying to discover the cause of Augustus’s death. ‘He probably frightened himself to death with his imagination,’ Wilson had said, and he had been exactly right. But, even if no weapon were used, it was still murder to frighten an old man so much that his heart stopped. Colet seemed about to continue, and Bartholomew could tell from the tone of his voice that he was only too happy to talk about the deeds he had done and boast of his own cleverness in evading detection, but Swynford took him roughly by the arm and pulled him away. The door was slammed shut and firmly bolted and barred again from the outside. Once more the room was plunged into pitch blackness. Bartholomew heard Michael groping around in the darkness, and moved across to him. The fat monk was damp with sweat and trembling violently.
‘How do you come to be here, Brother?’
Bartholomew asked, leading him to a crate, the position of which he knew so well from his wanderings in the dark.
‘How do you?’ retorted Michael angrily, pulling away from Bartholomew and stumbling against the chest. ‘The word is that you have gone to Peterborough on a mercy call from your old mentor the Abbott.’
Bartholomew immediately appreciated that it was a clever ploy on the part of Swynford to say that he had gone to Peterborough. It was very plausible that Bartholomew might answer a call of distress from the monks at the abbey where he had gone to school, and at any time other than while the plague raged in Cambridge, Bartholomew would have gone without hesitation. But Colet and Swynford did not know him as well as they thought.
“I would not leave,’ said Bartholomew, ‘when there is only me and Robin of Grantchester to help the sick.
And the Abbott would know I would not desert my patients, and would never ask me to go.’
Michael gave a grunt. “I suppose that seems reasonable.
But you still have not explained how you come to be here.’
‘Oswald!’ said Bartholomew suddenly. ‘How is he?’
‘He was hale and hearty when I saw him this morning.
Why do you ask?’
Bartholomew sagged in relief. His reasoning had been correct, and Stanmore was still safe. “I overheard Colet plotting to kill him,’ he said. “I was coming to warn Oswald when I very stupidly ran into Stephen and Swynford, and I have been here since Wednesday.’
‘Which was when you were said to have left for Peterborough,’ said Michael. Bartholomew heard a metallic sound as Michael struck a flint, and helped him smash one of the crates so that they could kindle a splinter of wood. The light was feeble, and it gave off eye-watering smoke, but Bartholomew was grateful to be able to see, if only dimly.
Michael put the burning stick near Bartholomew’s face and peered at him closely. ‘Oh lord, Matt! You look terrible. You should never have involved yourself in all this. I warned you against it.’
‘The same could be said for you,’ retorted Bartholomew, ‘for we both seem to be in the same predicament, regardless of our respective motives.’
‘Never mind that,’ said Michael. ‘We need to get out. Come and help me look.’
‘There is no way out,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Believe me, I have checked.’
He watched as Michael went through the same process that he had; how long before had it been?
The monk hammered and heaved at the door, he banged at the ceiling with a stick, and he prodded at the walls. Finally, defeated, he came to sit next to Bartholomew again.
“I have been in Ely with my lord the Bishop,’ Michael said. ‘We have been going over all the information he has been sent during the past few months about the Oxford plot.’
Bartholomew shook his head. ‘There is no plot,’ he said.
Michael looked at him curiously. ‘We also came to that conclusion,’ he said. ‘Is there anything to eat here?
I missed dinner.’
Bartholomew indicated a few crusts of bread that he had been saving, and a dribble of water in the pitcher.
Michael looked at them and shuddered. He continued with his story.
“I arrived back last night,’ he said, ‘and it is now Friday evening. You probably have no idea of time in this wretched hole.’
‘Have you seen Philippa?’ Bartholomew interrupted, thinking of the reason he had gone to Bene’t’s in the first place.
‘No,’ said Michael, ‘but I have seen Giles Abigny, and he told me his tale. He is not mixed up in all this, you know. I imagine that while you were ferreting around for information about Philippa you inadvertently picked up clues about this Oxford business. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Abignys are wholly unconnected with it all.’
‘Really? Do you not think it a coincidence that all this should happen at the same time, and that Bene’t Hostel figures in the Oxford business and is also Giles’s second home? And that the Principal of Bene’t’s- before he died — was Hugh Staple ton, in whose house Giles and Philippa hid?’
‘No, I do not,’ said Michael. “I can see why you are suspicious, but the Oxford business has been rolling on for more than a year now. Philippa and Giles only executed their little plot over the past few weeks. And I would be as suspicious of Giles as you are, if I were not sure that Hugh and Cedric Stapleton were also innocent in all this. Hugh suspected something was fermenting in his hostel and contacted the Bishop about it. He sent reports on various comings and goings, and Cedric continued them after Hugh’s death. Hugh and Cedric were fickle, frivolous men, like Giles, and quite the wrong kind of people to be recruited by Swynford. They were not even recruited for the bogus hostel group that your brother-in-law was mixed up with.’
‘You know about that?’ said Bartholomew, startled.
‘What else do you know?’ “I was telling you,’ said Michael with a superior expression, ‘but you interrupted me with your question about Philippa. And while we are on that subject, she has taken your supposed journey to Peterborough very personally. Abigny tells me she fluctuates between anger and sorrow, and will think of nothing else. How can you doubt her, Matt?’
Bartholomew shook his head. So he had been wrong, and Philippa and Abigny were innocent after all. If Philippa were acting as Michael described, then she could not know that he was being kept prisoner in Stephen’s dungeon. But it would not matter soon anyway if Swynford’s plans came to fruition. Bartholomew’s greatest regret would be that he would never have the opportunity to tell Philippa he was sorry, and she might hate him for it.
Michael kindled another piece of wood, coughing as it released a choking grey smoke. ‘As I said before, I have been sifting through reports the Bishop has received during the last year in an attempt to understand this, and I believe I now know the truth.’
‘Then how did you come to be taken by Swynford?’ asked Bartholomew.
“I was rash,’ said Michael. “I reported my findings to the Bishop, and he told me to return to Michaelhouse and do nothing. But there were gaps in my knowledge, and I could not resist trying to fill them in. I undertook to question Burwell, and then Stayne. They obviously grew suspicious, and I received a message from Stanmore asking me to visit him. I went, and found not Stanmore, but his younger brother. I brazened it out, asking guileless questions and pretending to be convinced of the reality of the Oxford plot, but it was all to no avail. Colet and Swynford appeared out of nowhere, and I was hauled down here.’
‘A note,’ said Bartholomew, bitterly. ‘How many times have Colet and Swynford used that device? They sent such a note to Sir John, enticing him to the meeting at which he was killed; they sent one to me saying I was needed by a patient, after which I was attacked; and they sent one to Oswald and me purporting to be from Edith, intending to get us out of the way so Swynford could have his meeting here.’
‘It seems we are in a fix, Matt,’ said Michael, his flabby face serious. ‘Will they kill us?’
‘They will try,’ Bartholomew replied.
Michael gave him a weak smile. ‘It will do them no good. The Bishop knows everything I do, except your role in all this, and Abigny’s innocence, of which I have only recently learned.’
‘What of rescue?’ asked Bartholomew hopefully.
‘Did you tell anyone where you were going?’
Michael smiled ruefully. ‘The note purporting to be from Oswald asked me to keep our meeting a secret.’
‘But what of the Bishop? Will he not grow suspicious of your disappearance?’
‘Undoubtedly. But unless one of the hostel cabal reveals where we are, he is unlikely to stumble on us by accident.’
Bartholomew thought about the cunningly concealed entrance in the stable and concurred. Stanmore and Richard knew about the chambers, but they would never imagine that Stephen had used them to imprison him. They might not visit the underground storerooms for years to come.
‘What about you?’ asked Michael. ‘Will Cynric wonder about your sudden disappearance?’ “I think I would have been rescued by now if he had,’ said Bartholomew. ‘And he probably thinks I have gone to Peterborough, as you did. Even if he is suspicious, he will blame Oswald, not Stephen.’
They were silent for a while, each wrapped in his own thoughts. Michael’s piece of wood crackled and the flame went out.
“I thoughtyou were involved in all this,’ said Michael distantly, kindling another piece of wood. ‘You talked to Aelfrith in the orchard, but would not tell me what you had discussed. You spent ages with Augustus after he died, and I thoughtyou were looking for the seal. Wilson singled you out to talk to on his deathbed. You had no alibi for when Augustus and Paul were murdered. And howwas I to know that you had not hurled yourself down the stairs that night to confound us? You also searched my room, and I found you reading my note to the Bishop.’
‘The Bishop!’ said Bartholomew. So that was to whom Michael was writing. He reached forward to grab Michael’s arm. “I did not search your room. The note just fell on the floor when I opened the door to look for you.’
‘Well,’ said Michael, ‘there were occasions when I was convinced you were the killer, while other times I was uncertain. I took a terrible risk for you when I agreed not to tell anyone you had read my note. I suppose I could not bring myself to think that you would harm Augustus and Paul, and I also believe you are a good physician and would not make mistakes about the quantity of whatever foul potion was used to drug the commoners. But even more, I know how close a friend Sir John was to you, and could not suppose that you would ever have done anything to harm him.’
‘When I read the note I thought you might be the murderer,’ said Bartholomew.
“Me?’ said Michael aghast. ‘On what grounds? I have never done anything the least bit suspicious!’
‘You were one of the first to arrive when the initial attempt was made on Augustus’s life. Aelfrith, who was poisoned, died in your room. And you acted most strangely over Augustus’s corpse. You refused even to look at it’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Michael, struggling to light another piece of wood. ‘Augustus.’ He shook his head sadly.
Bartholomew waited for him to continue.
‘He was murdered, you know, for Sir John’s seal.
You know about the seal?’ Bartholomew nodded, and Michael continued. ‘Before he died, Augustus claimed that devils were in his room. Remember? Well, before all that happened, he had told me that someone would try to kill him. He kept me up a long time that night with his rantings. I thought I had calmed him down, and went off to the kitchen for something to eat. Within a few minutes, he started screaming again. I ran to his room where you and I broke the door down together. It was full of smoke, and he was insane with fear. I realised that I was not the only person to have worked out that Augustus’s room was the only place Sir John could have hidden the seal before he died. You arrived just after me.’
Bartholomew remembered well. He had wondered at the time how Michael had managed to reach Augustus’s room before him. That he had been raiding the kitchen made perfect sense.
‘You offered to stay with Augustus for the rest of the night, and so I knew he would be safe if anyone really had been trying to kill him in order to search for the seal. I kept a close eye on him for the next couple of days, and went to check on him before Wilson’s installation dinner.
I was absolutely horrified when I heard he had been killed during the feast, especially after one attempt on the poor man had already been made. Anyway, I had never seen a murdered man before, and I am afraid it unnerved me more than I would have thought. I was afraid to look into his face, because I have heard that a picture of the murderer is always burned into the victim’s eyes. I have also heard that a victim’s body bleeds in the presence of his murderer, and I felt that Augustus might bleed for me because I was unable to save him when I knew his life was in danger.’
He stopped, and looked at Bartholomew with a weak smile. ‘All silly nonsense, of course, and I would not usually stoop to such superstition. But the whole of that day was unreal — Wilson’s endless ceremonies, all that wine, town people in the College, the riot, the Oliver brothers trying to lock you out, and then Augustus dead. It was all too much. I was deeply shocked, because I had seen him alive such a short time before. Does this explain my behaviour to you?’
Bartholomew shrugged. “I suppose so, but you do not usually panic so easily.’
‘Well, there was one other thing too,’ he said. ‘The Bishop spoke to me that day, and said that he wanted me to act as his agent in Michaelhouse. He told me about the deaths of Fellows in other Colleges, and said that Aelfrith was already acting as his spy. He said he wanted me to act totally independendy of Aelfrith, so that if one line of communication were to fail, the other would remain intact. He gave me until the following day to decide whether I would take on the task. When Augustus died, I realised exactly what he was asking me to embroil myself in, and, frankly, it terrified me. But the next day, I spoke to the Bishop, and told him I would do it — for the College and for the University.’
He paused again. “I have been acting on behalf of the Bishop ever since. I tried to warn you to keep out of it, Matt. I thoughtyou did not realise what you might get into, and Augustus’s murder showed me that it was no longer a silly game played by bored scholars with active minds and too much free time, but something far more deadly.’
Michael’s lighted stick crackled and popped, and Bartholomew realised again how wrong he had been.
He stood up, and stretched carefully. He sat again, and made up his mind. He began to tell Michael everything he knew and had surmised.