Chapter 9

‘But why did you not say you saw Rob Thorpe at the installation ceremony?’ cried Bartholomew angrily, leaping to his feet and sending the figs scattering over the table in the little room at the back of the Brazen George. ‘You might have saved me that ugly scene with Edith!’

‘Your family is in fine form today,’ said Michael with irritating calm. ‘This morning Oswald and Edith holler at you and now you yell at me. Sit down and drink some ale. I will explain if you let me.’

‘I do not want any ale!’ snapped Bartholomew. ‘Just tell me what game you are playing now.’

‘No game,’ said Michael, suddenly serious. ‘Lives are at stake here, Matt: Bingham’s for one. As soon as you had collared that young rat Thorpe, I knew you were right: it was him at the installation behind Grene, and he did indeed help you carry Grene’s body to the chapel. Yet he was different — his hair was black, not light brown, and his eyebrows were darker and heavier. He had disguised himself. And Edith was wrong when she said she would have noticed him at the installation — she was not expecting him to be there and so she had no reason to look. The hall at Valence Marie is huge and with all those people crushed into it, it is not surprising that she failed to notice a single servant at a table a long way from her own.’

‘Could you not have pointed this out to her?’ asked Bartholomew bitterly. ‘It might have gone some way to making her believe I am not an ogre blaming a murder on an innocent child.’

Michael took a hearty mouthful of meat and swallowed it with the most superficial of chews. Bartholomew watched in distaste as the monk wiped the grease from his mouth on his sleeve and turned his attentions to the onions bobbing around in the thick gravy.

‘I tried to stop you from continuing with your accusations, Matt,’ he said, in the same maddeningly tranquil voice. ‘I knew Edith and Oswald would never believe ill of one of their apprentices: they treat them like their own children. But you insisted in blundering on.’

Bartholomew wanted to grab him by the front of his habit and yell at him to stop being so infuriatingly smug. He chewed at his lip and wondered about the number of times he had recently felt moved to violence — towards Julianna for her attitude to Egil; towards Langelee for goading him about Matilde; towards Rob Thorpe for his gloating smile; and now even towards Michael.

‘It was better that I said nothing,’ Michael continued placidly. ‘Rob Thorpe would simply have continued to deny the accusations, and had I told Edith that I, too, had seen him at the installation, she would have assumed I was lying to support you. Nothing I could have said would have made any difference.’

‘So what do we do now?’ demanded Bartholomew. He sat down with an exhausted sigh. ‘What a mess!’

‘We wait,’ said Michael, taking another mouthful of boiled onions and smiling at his friend.

‘Wait for what?’ asked Bartholomew, putting his elbows on the table and resting his chin in his hands. ‘For Thorpe to deliver us a bottle of poisoned wine? I might be tempted to drink it: I have had my fill of all this subterfuge.’

‘Now, now,’ said Michael, gently chiding. ‘What would Matilde do without you?’ He favoured Bartholomew with one of his leering winks and coaxed the ghost of a smile from his morose friend. ‘But, meanwhile, we will wait for Rob Thorpe to go running off to the person who led him into all this murder and mayhem in the first place — his accomplice!’

Bartholomew lifted his head. ‘And what makes you so sure there is such a person?’

‘As your sister pointed out, Thorpe is seventeen years old. He would hardly be able to get himself into Valence Marie for the night without help.’

‘So you do think he killed Grene?’

‘Without a doubt,’ said Michael, waving a greasy hand in the air. ‘Although I cannot believe he did so alone. Gray and his cronies claim they saw an apprentice buying wine from Sacks on a Saturday night about a month ago. Philius was summoned to Stanmore’s house later that night because someone there was stricken by an ailment — which you and he later discovered had the same symptoms of the poisonings of Grene and Armel. I suspect that the apprentice was Thorpe and that he probably bought the wine in total innocence. Then, another lad drank the wine Thorpe bought and died most horribly. It was his death that gave Thorpe the idea of killing Grene.’

‘But wait a moment!’ said Bartholomew. ‘This is all very well. But what of the motive? Why should Thorpe want Grene dead? Why not Bingham who, after all, was the man elected into the position left vacant by his father’s dismissal?’

Michael rubbed hard at the whiskers that stubbled his jowls, making a rasping sound. ‘By killing Grene, Thorpe has struck a blow at both rivals for his father’s position, not just one,’ he said. ‘Grene is dead and it is Bingham who is accused of his murder.’

Bartholomew considered. ‘But if Isaac took the poisoned wine from Thorpe — and we know he did because Philius saw him — how did Thorpe acquire another bottle with which to kill Grene?’

‘We can surmise he bought two bottles from Sacks,’ said Michael. ‘Gray said Sacks had six bottles initially. A few weeks later, Sacks was still trying to sell four of them. Four, Matt, not five.’

‘I see,’ said Bartholomew. ‘So Thorpe bought two bottles — Isaac stole one and the other came briefly into our possession after it had killed Grene at the feast. Armel bought three — stolen from us at Michaelhouse. Which leaves one. Whoever has that will be in for an unpleasant shock.’

‘We must to talk to Sacks,’ said Michael. ‘If we can discover to whom he sold the sixth bottle, we may yet save a life. I have had two beadles looking for him since this business began, but he seems to have fled the town. And who can blame him, given what he has done?’

‘This accomplice of Thorpe’s,’ said Bartholomew, unable to banish the vision of the apprentice’s gloating face from his mind, ‘do you think it may be Father Eligius at Valence Marie?’

Michael puffed out his cheeks, and nodded. ‘I must confess, it has crossed my mind. We have already discussed the possibility that Eligius had a hand in Grene’s death.’

‘We know Eligius is a firm believer that Bingham is responsible for Grene’s murder,’ said Bartholomew thoughtfully. ‘He even arranged to have Bingham arrested — and he wanted it done with such haste that he could not even wait until you had finished looking into that burglary at St Clement’s Hostel, and asked the Sheriff to do it instead.’

‘True,’ said Michael. ‘And what better way to hide his own guilt than to blame someone else? And, if you remember, Eligius was also the first Fellow to claim that Grene had confided that he was in fear of his life from Bingham.’

‘But what of the other two Fellows who claimed Grene had made a similar confession to them?’ asked Bartholomew uncertainly. ‘Do you think they are lying, too?’

‘“Claimed” is the pertinent word,’ said Michael. ‘Once Eligius stated that Grene had confessed himself in fear of his life, the other two might have thought back to conversations they had with Grene and read a significance into his words that was never there. Eligius is a brilliant logician, skilled at wrapping the arguments of others around their ears with his word-play. I imagine it would be easy for him to plant doubts in the minds of the others about supposed hidden meanings in Grene’s statements.’

‘All very well,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But I still cannot see why a renowned scholar like Eligius should risk all to help some apprentice commit murder.’

‘If we knew that, we would have the evidence we need to tackle him,’ said Michael. ‘But it would have been simple for him, as a Fellow of Valence Marie, to help Rob Thorpe to slip into the College and to secure him a place near Grene at the high table. Then Thorpe could have given Grene the poisoned wine unobtrusively.’

They were silent for a while, thinking about what they had reasoned. Bartholomew wondered whether a seventeen-year-old apprentice would be able to conceive and execute such a plan alone and decided it was unlikely. In which case, why should Eligius help Thorpe in his warped desire for vengeance? It seemed a dangerous game to play, especially if Thorpe’s nerve broke and he revealed the identity of his accomplice to the Proctors.

When Bartholomew and Michael had been examining Grene’s body in St Botolph’s Church, Eligius had made it clear that he believed Bingham to be responsible. Was that to ensure Michael’s investigation concentrated on Bingham, and did not attempt to seek other possible culprits? But the niggling doubt at the back of Bartholomew’s mind was Eligius’s apparent lack of motive. Bartholomew could conceive of no earthly reason why Eligius should want to rid Valence Marie of Grene and Bingham in so dramatic a manner, just because he was unimpressed with their intellectual abilities. He had not wanted the Mastership for himself or he would have taken it when it had been offered to him.

Bartholomew turned his thoughts to the wine. ‘There are aspects to this poison I do not understand,’ he said aloud. ‘I saw that cat drink from the broken bottle and it did not die; but the rat did, instantly. And Philius became ill from the poison, but he did not die, despite the fact that it was strong enough to cause that burn on Isaac’s hand.’

‘Armel seems to have died as quickly as Grene,’ said Michael. ‘And the porter at Valence Marie, who was overly curious about the three bottles we left in his care, also burned his hand on them. Perhaps Philius and the cat had a greater resistance to the poison than had Grene and Armel. You are always telling me that people react differently to the same disease and the same treatments.’

‘But not usually to poisons,’ said Bartholomew. ‘At least, not to that extent. A poison strong enough to kill a person from a single sip is hardly likely to have no effect at all on a cat. But we still do not know why Sacks sold this poisoned wine in the first place. Gray says Sacks often sells stolen goods to students, so he would hardly want to deprive himself of their custom by killing them. He must have stolen them from someone else.’

‘That is it!’ said Michael, clicking his fingers with sudden insight. ‘Of course! You have it! He stole them. They were never meant to be sold around the town taverns, and that is why someone went to such pains to retrieve them — as you pointed out days ago. Someone wanted the evidence back. This is beginning to make sense.’

‘Not to me,’ said Bartholomew. ‘So, what you are suggesting is that Sacks stole these six bottles of wine and began selling them in the Brazen George. Thorpe and his cronies, perhaps out of fear of Oswald’s anger at their disobedience, covered up the death of the apprentice Oswald denies losing. Thorpe kept the second bottle to use at a later date-’

‘And that meant that the people trying to retrieve their wine would have no clue where to look,’ interrupted Michael, nodding. ‘There were no tales of sudden and violent death for four weeks to reveal the bottles’ whereabouts — although Sacks sold the first of the wine four weeks ago, the first public death did not occur until last Saturday.’

He took a bone from his plate and gnawed it thoughtfully, while Bartholomew watched him, wondering whether all their reasoning was correct. Michael waved the bone in the air and continued.

‘At the installation I did not announce the fact that I had taken the bottle from which Grene had been drinking to look for poison, but I did not take it with stealth. Anyone might have seen me remove it. I imagine that, first, these people went to Michaelhouse, where they found not one but four of their bottles. Then they went to Gonville Hall where they retrieved the fifth one and killed Isaac at the same time.’

‘But why go to Gonville at all?’ asked Bartholomew. ‘No one knew that Philius had been poisoned until I diagnosed it. And why was Isaac’s death so brutal?’

Michael shrugged and then stretched his meaty arms. ‘I confess I do not know. But we have made good headway with this mystery. At least we have the answer to some of our questions.’

‘But not the identities of the people trying to kill us,’ said Bartholomew glumly. ‘And not why someone chopped Egil’s head and hands from his body. Nor why Eligius should help a misguided adolescent commit murder. And I am still uncomfortable with the roles Colton and Julianna are playing in all this.’

‘And we know a little of the smugglers that my grandmother uncovered,’ said Michael, ignoring Bartholomew’s pessimism. He gestured at the figs. ‘The town is flooded with foods not normally seen at this time of year. Deschalers is a grocer — these figs, lemons, nuts and Agatha’s pomegranate must have come from him. I am not sure I believe Deschalers’s claim that he stores them in his cellars. Gathers them from the Fens, more like.’

‘Deschalers said he did not know the smugglers were operating in the area around Denny,’ said Bartholomew slowly, ‘suggesting that he knows about smuggling elsewhere. Was his name one of the ones Dame Pelagia gave to Tulyet?’

Michael waved his hand expansively. ‘No, but once Tulyet has a couple of these smugglers in his cells, they will soon reveal who the ringleaders are. He should be rounding them up even as we speak.’ He swirled the wine around in his cup as Bartholomew paced restlessly.

‘I do not see why the mutilation of Egil was necessary,’ said Bartholomew. ‘The man was dead. There was nothing to be gained from it. Unless …’

‘Unless what?’ asked Michael, looking up from his wine.

‘Something Deynman said,’ said Bartholomew, frowning.

‘I can tell I am about to be treated to some great pearl of wisdom,’ said Michael drily. ‘What could Deynman say that would possibly stick in your mind?’

‘When he was asked how he would treat a head wound in his disputation, he said he would poke about in it to make certain there was nothing more serious hidden underneath.’

‘Oh, Matt!’ said Michael with a face of disgust. ‘The boy is deranged. I take it you did not teach him that? God forbid he should ever come near me if I am injured!’

‘But what he says might make sense in the case of Egil,’ said Bartholomew, sitting down abruptly. ‘I wonder if that was why his head was taken — to hide another wound.’

‘But we saw the wound,’ said Michael. ‘A great soggy mess at the back of his skull where sweet Julianna brained him.’

‘No, not that wound,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But there might have been others. Like blisters in his mouth and burns on his hands.’

Michael stared at him. ‘What are you saying? That Egil was poisoned?’

Bartholomew stood and began to pace again. ‘No. He could not have been — he was certainly not lacking in strength when he fought me. Forget what I said. It was foolish and implausible, even for this unsavoury affair.’

‘But removing a head from a corpse is an implausible action,’ said Michael, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. ‘Let us think through this notion of yours, before dismissing it out of hand. Tulyet and Stanmore said that Egil was a Fenman — and we know smuggling has been a source of income for Fenland families for generations. It is entirely possible that Egil was involved in smuggling. You saw his body, and you said there were no injuries — other than the fact that he was missing his head and hands — so it seems he was not harmed as Alan and his men attacked us. In which case, we can assume that he was known to them. It is even possible he was sent to hunt us down after we escaped the fire at Denny.’

‘And so his head and hands were taken because his associates were afraid that they might reveal something to us,’ said Bartholomew. ‘They did not take his clothes, so it was clearly not his identity that they were trying to hide. I keep coming back to the poisoned wine and tell-tale burns. It is the only reason I can think of for which these people might go to such extremes.’

The door opened silently and Cynric stepped lightly into the room. Abandoning the remains of his repast, Michael stood to greet him, his eyebrows raised expectantly.

‘I was afraid I would lose Rob Thorpe if I stopped to fetch you first,’ said Cynric without preamble, ‘so I followed him to see where he went.’

‘And where did he go?’ asked Michael, folding his arms, and throwing a superior glance at Bartholomew. ‘Now we will see, my friend. I wager you anything you like that Rob Thorpe will have fled straight to his accomplice to discuss how best to deal with the unwanted attentions of the Senior Proctor and his colleagues.’

‘No, he did not,’ said Cynric. ‘He went to St Botolph’s Church. He knelt at the altar for a while — alone — and then he went back to Master Stanmore’s house without having spoken to anyone.’

‘Nothing!’ spat Michael in disgust at breakfast the following day, ignoring the admonishing looks of Alcote and Father William for speaking. ‘Cynric watched Oswald Stanmore’s premises all night and Rob Thorpe did not so much as put a foot outside. Are you certain there is no other way out?’

Bartholomew nodded. ‘The only door is at the front. Perhaps we are wrong and Thorpe has no ally at Valence Marie after all. Perhaps Edith and Oswald are right and we are mistaken.’

‘We are not mistaken!’ snapped Michael in frustration, drawing further disapproving glares from his colleagues and the interested attentions of the students at the next table. He grabbed a lump of bread made from grey, grainy flour and gnawed at it so that crumbs snowed down the front of his habit. ‘Gray and the others saw Thorpe buying the poisoned wine from Sacks; Father Philius attended a dead apprentice at Stanmore’s business premises; you and I know it was Thorpe who helped us carry Grene’s body from Valence Marie’s hall. Even if we have misinterpreted some of the facts, the evidence that remains is overwhelming: Thorpe is involved in Grene’s death without question. And he could not have gained access to Valence Marie without help.’

‘I wonder why he went to St Botolph’s,’ said Bartholomew, deliberately not looking at Alcote, who was trying to catch his eye to warn him against talking without breaking silence himself. Had he not been discussing something as sombre as murder, Bartholomew would have found his antics amusing. On Alcote’s other side, the surly Langelee sipped his watered ale carefully, his red-rimmed eyes and unsteady hands suggesting he was not in much of a condition to care whether his colleagues talked during the meal or not, as long as they kept their voices low.

Next to Kenyngham, whose anger of the previous day had faded so that he was back to his usual absent-minded geniality, Runham regarded the restless students with his heavily lidded eyes. Gray stared back, although even his insolence and confidence was no match for Runham, and he was the first to look away. Runham shifted his gaze to Deynman who, knowing he was in disgrace for failing his disputation, at least had the grace to turn red and shuffle his feet uncomfortably on the floor.

‘Oh, why Thorpe went to church is no mystery,’ replied Michael with a flap of a flabby hand. ‘I spoke to the priests there last night — just as your brother-in-law advised us to do. Thorpe earns extra pennies by sweeping their church, and apparently, over the last few weeks, has taken to haunting the place even when there is no sweeping to be done. He told the priests that he likes to be there to escape from the childish behaviour of Stanmore’s younger apprentices.’

‘So, what shall we do next?’ asked Bartholomew, sipping Michaelhouse’s cloudy breakfast ale with a grimace. ‘Cynric needs to rest, and I am not going to watch Oswald’s house all day. Supposing Edith spotted me?’

Michael leaned plump elbows on the table and sighed. ‘Perhaps Tulyet’s excursions of the past two days will yield some results. At least we no longer need to worry about the smugglers — that is in his hands now.’

‘We certainly do need to worry, Brother,’ said Bartholomew fervently. ‘They tried to kill us, and I will continue to worry until I am certain they are all secured in Tulyet’s prison cells.’

They stood for grace, and then trailed across the muddy yard towards their rooms. It was almost six o’clock and time for teaching to begin, but Bartholomew felt strangely apathetic towards it. Bulbeck’s failure — whatever the excuse — had been an unpleasant shock, and he wondered whether Langelee was right, and that he should concentrate more on teaching traditional medicine than on telling his students his own theories — regardless of his personal beliefs.

Just as this thought crossed Bartholomew’s mind, Langelee swaggered towards them, and intercepted their perilous journey across the morass that claimed to be Michaelhouse’s courtyard. He went through an elaborate pantomime of showing Bartholomew his hands, to prove that he was unarmed and that the physician had no need to draw his own weapon. Bartholomew raised his eyes heavenwards, and tried to walk past him without speaking. Langelee grabbed his shoulder, and Bartholomew flinched backwards at the strong smell of wine that wafted into his face. No wonder he had been fragile at breakfast — he was still drunk from the night before.

‘I wondered if I might borrow the copy of Aristotle’s De Caelo that you have been hogging all term,’ he said, with an unpleasant smile. ‘I am to be the presiding master at a public debate, the title of which is “Let us enquire whether the world is created or eternal”, and I need to refresh my memory about what Aristotle says on the matter.’

‘It is my own copy, not Michaelhouse’s,’ said Bartholomew. ‘But you may borrow it if you like. I find it a difficult text, and would like to come to listen to your debate.’

Michael seized the physician’s sleeve and tried to pull him away, guessing that Bartholomew’s motive for attending Langelee’s debate would not be to learn. De Caelo was one of Bartholomew’s favourite books, and the fact that it was one of only two texts he owned meant that he knew it inside out. Michael knew Bartholomew and Langelee well enough to predict which one would emerge victorious from a battle of intellects and which one would be left looking foolish.

He saw Kenyngham watching them from the window of his chamber, and sensed, once again, that Bartholomew should steer clear of encounters with Langelee if he wanted to continue to teach at Michaelhouse. He tightened his grip on Bartholomew’s sleeve.

Langelee looked surprised — both at Bartholomew’s request and Michael’s reaction. He narrowed his eyes. ‘You should come to hear me,’ he said. ‘You might learn something, although it is a difficult question and you probably will not understand all the arguments I make.’

‘Really?’ asked Bartholomew guilelessly. ‘And which of the two positions do you believe is the more viable: that the world was created or that it is eternal?’

‘That it is infinite,’ said Langelee without hesitation. ‘Any fool can see that. Otherwise everything in nature would have a much newer feel to it — like rivers and rocks and the oceans.’

‘But that would mean that the world had no beginning,’ said Bartholomew, trying to disengage his arm from Michael’s insistent tug. ‘And, the logical conclusion to be drawn from that is that an infinite number of celestial revolutions must have occurred to bring us to the present. But, because an infinite number of revolutions can never be completed, it stands that the revolution we are in now cannot have been reached. And that, of course, is absurd.’

‘Eh?’ said Langelee, blinking.

‘And further,’ said Bartholomew, prising Michael’s fingers from his sleeve, ‘as St Bonaventure argues, if an infinite number of revolutions have occurred until the present, the ones that will occur tomorrow will have to be added to that infinite number, which, I think you will agree, is impossible.’

‘I … well,’ said Langelee uncertainly.

‘That is enough, Matt,’ said Michael sharply, glancing up to where Kenyngham watched them from the window of his room. ‘Master Langelee is perfectly capable of refuting St Bonaventure’s arguments should he so desire. We all know that neither the creation of the world nor its eternity are scientifically demonstrable — as indeed Thomas Aquinas points out — and that, as such, they are equally probable.’ He grabbed Bartholomew’s tabard again.

‘Hmm,’ said Langelee non-committally.

‘If we cannot discuss philosophy, then perhaps we can talk about common acquaintances,’ said Bartholomew pleasantly, still attempting to extricate himself from Michael’s grip. ‘I hear you are acquainted with Julianna, the Abbess of Denny’s niece.’

Langelee’s eyes narrowed again. ‘So? At least she is not a harlot like your Matilde. She is also the niece of Thomas Deschalers the merchant, and so is very well connected.’

‘She is betrothed to Edward Mortimer,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Did you know that?’

The suspicion vanished from Langelee’s face to be replaced by patent disbelief. ‘What? Julianna is not betrothed to anyone!’

‘You are right. She is not,’ said Michael, hauling on Bartholomew’s gown so hard that there was a sharp snap of ripped stitches. ‘Matt has been listening to too much town gossip.’

Langelee moved like lightning to prevent the monk from pulling Bartholomew away from him, and Bartholomew, standing awkwardly because of the way Michael was tugging on his tabard, tripped over the philosopher’s foot. He skidded in the mud, and only saved himself from a tumble by snatching at Michael’s habit. Langelee raised his eyebrows as the physician struggled to regain his footing.

‘You should go more easily on the ale, Bartholomew,’ he said. ‘Drinking in the mornings, I am sure, is bad for the balance of the humours.’

‘You should know,’ muttered Bartholomew.

Langelee’s heavy eyebrows drew together, and he opened his mouth to reply. Michael intervened hastily, realising that an argument would ensue between his friend and the aggressive philosopher unless he prevented it — and Kenyngham was still at his window. He decided the best way to silence Langelee was to go on the offensive himself.

‘You seem to be a little unsteady yourself, Master Langelee,’ he said. ‘As Senior Proctor, I must warn you that such behaviour is insupportable. My advice to you is that you remain in your chamber until you are certain you are no longer under the influence of last night’s wine.’

Before Langelee could reply, Michael had gained a powerful hold on Bartholomew’s arm, and was away with him across the courtyard, leaving the philosopher spluttering with impotent rage.

‘The more I speak with that fellow, the less I like him,’ said the obese monk pompously. ‘I do not know why he insists on holding conversations when his sole intention is to needle people. Borrow Aristotle indeed! He would not know one end of De Caelo from the other!’

‘He also does not know of Julianna’s betrothal,’ said Bartholomew thoughtfully. He rubbed his arm where Michael’s fingers had pinched. ‘He seemed quite disappointed to learn she was unavailable. Maybe I should let him know he has had a lucky escape. Or is the luck Julianna’s?’

‘You will do no such thing,’ said Michael firmly. ‘That man clearly has some kind of grudge against you, and you would be well advised to stay clear of him until I can have quiet words in high places and see about getting him transferred to another College — Valence Marie, perhaps, or King’s Hall.’ He glanced up at Kenyngham, still watching from his window. ‘Assuming, of course, that words in high places were not had to bring him here in the first place.’

Bartholomew was spared from answering by someone shouting for Michael. They turned and saw Vice-Chancellor Harling picking his way cautiously across the yard.

‘Can you do nothing about this foul mire?’ he grumbled, looking at his splattered boots in dismay. ‘Physwick Hostel does not boast such a mud bath.’

‘Physwick Hostel does not have a yard,’ retorted Michael. He smiled before Harling could take offence. ‘I was about to come to see you.’

‘Well, then, I have saved you the trouble,’ said Harling. ‘At the expense of my boots! But I wanted to tell you personally, Matthew, how appalled I was when Brother Michael told me about the attack on you when you went to see to the Bishop. I wish I had tried harder to dissuade you from going. I shall say a mass today to give thanks for your deliverance.’

Bartholomew smiled. ‘Thank you. If we had listened to your misgivings about the journey none of it would have happened.’

‘True,’ said Harling. ‘Although I did not come here to gloat. I came to ask whether you had discovered anything new.’ The Vice-Chancellor shook his head as Deynman, hurrying to attend one of Alcote’s basic grammar lectures in the hall, fell flat on his back in the mud and slid some distance before coming to a halt.

‘Not really,’ said Michael. ‘Today I plan to visit St Bernard’s Hostel to see if I can learn anything further about Armel’s death, and then I will go to the castle to see how Tulyet has fared.’

‘What is the Sheriff doing?’

‘I was given the names of a ring of smugglers in the area by an informant,’ said Michael vaguely. ‘We believe it was the smugglers who made the attempt on our lives.’

‘Your informant is the nun you brought from Denny?’ asked Harling. Michael stared at him in surprise and Harling smiled. ‘You chose an unfortunate accomplice in Mistress Julianna, Brother. She has been bragging all over the town how she and an elderly cleric escaped certain death from ruthless outlaws.’

Michael was horrified. ‘I thought we could rely on her discretion when a life was at stake!’

‘Whatever gave you that idea, Brother?’ muttered Bartholomew.

Harling patted the monk’s arm in a soothing gesture. ‘Do not fear. Julianna thinks you have secreted this old nun here, in Michaelhouse.’ He watched the grey-robed Franciscans assembling to process to the church for another mass. ‘Although how she imagines you could hide a woman here with Father William and Master Alcote at large, I cannot imagine. Those are men who would not budge an inch in their conviction that women have no place in a College — even an elderly nun in fear of her life.’

‘Yes, Michaelhouse is not noted for its tolerance and compassion,’ said Bartholomew, looking to where Langelee was berating Agatha for taking too long to mend one of his shirts. The formidable laundress put her hands on her hips and glowered, looking so dangerous that the philosopher prudently backed down and slunk away while he was still able. ‘Apart from Master Kenyngham, who I am not sure lives in the same world as us most of the time, our Fellows are a band of bigoted fanatics who would rather see someone die than one of our rules broken.’

‘Dame Pelagia will not die,’ said Michael, quietly firm. ‘Even if it means I have to take that loose-mouthed Julianna back to Denny to shut her up.’

‘Do not worry about Julianna,’ said Harling. ‘It is clear she knows nothing that can harm anyone, least of all your old nun. But why did you bring them to Cambridge in the first place?’

Michael scratched his chin. ‘I was forced to remove Dame Pelagia from Denny for her own safety. She knew too much for her own good about these smugglers.’

‘That was prudent of you,’ said Harling approvingly. ‘It would be unfortunate for the University if enquiries by one of its Proctors brought about the death of a nun. Do you have her in a safe place? If not, Physwick owns a small house in Trumpington that is seldom used. I can arrange for you to have it for a few days without the knowledge of my colleagues, should you need it.’

‘Thank you,’ said Michael with a grateful grin. ‘That may become necessary and I appreciate your kindness.’

‘However,’ continued Harling, ‘I am concerned about your close association with the Sheriff. If a dispute between canon and secular law arises — with the Chancellor on one side and the Sheriff on the other — your relationship with Tulyet might put you in a difficult position.’

Michael considered. ‘You are right,’ he said after a moment. ‘Thank you for your concern. Let us hope such a rift will not occur until this smuggling business is solved.’

Harling nodded. ‘I must not detain you.’ He paused uncertainly but then plunged on. ‘I appreciate what you have sacrificed in order to continue your duties as Senior Proctor, Brother. I would like you to know that I am not the only one to admire your loyalty and good service to the University, the town and the Bishop.’

Michael smiled, showing his small, yellow teeth. ‘Be assured, Master Harling, that Matt and I will do all in our power to bring this business to an acceptable end — acceptable for the University, and for us.’

Such declarations of loyalty and gratitude were too much for Bartholomew. Michael, he knew very well, would not hesitate to double-cross Harling if he felt he might gain something from it, while Harling probably had very good reasons for soliciting Michael’s allegiance and support. Perhaps Harling was planning to discredit the Chancellor — who was, by anyone’s standards, taking an inordinately long time enjoying the luxuries of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely — and was going to force another election. Bartholomew was also bothered by Michael’s promise to bring about an ‘acceptable end’ to the poisoned wine affair: it bespoke of corruption and secrecy.

Smiling politely, he made his farewells to Harling and Michael, and went to see Bulbeck, who was slowly mending. He found the student sitting up in bed and pestering Gray to fetch him something to eat. Bartholomew sent Gray for some watered oatmeal and, satisfied that his patient was on the way to recovery, relinquished him to the rough, but sincere attentions of his friends. Even before he left the room, Bartholomew’s mind began to mull over the symptoms of Bulbeck’s sickness. If Bulbeck had taken only a sip of water from the well, and had become ill so quickly, then the well must be tainted more heavily than he had imagined. He decided to postpone his teaching and to go to inspect it himself, thinking that he might be able to persuade the Mayor to have it boarded over until the river level began to fall again.

The well stood in Water Lane, a seedy alley of deeply rutted mud that ran between Milne Street and the wharves. Unstable looking houses clustered closely along both sides, and Bartholomew was certain that if one fell they would all collapse, like a group of drunks clinging to each other for support. The ground underfoot was soft with human and animal dung that had been deposited there over many years, and the sharp stench of urine, rotting vegetables and offal made his eyes water.

The lane opened out into a small square around the well. A group of children played there, thin legs and arms poking from brown rags, as they scampered after a mangy dog with a filthy red ribbon tied around its neck. When Bartholomew crossed the square, they abandoned their game and besieged him, tugging at his tabard with grimy fingers and chanting their demands for pennies in high-pitched monotones. He flung them a handful of coins and approached the well.

Above ground, it was a simple wooden structure with a stone wall that stood to waist height, and a thatched roof, so that people winching up the water could stand out of the rain; below ground it was a narrow stone tube that dropped into deep darkness. Bartholomew leaned his elbows on the wall and peered down into the blackness. He could see the silvery glint of water at its foot, but jolted his head back sharply as an unpleasant odour drifted up.

‘That is disgusting!’ he muttered.

‘Talking to yourself?’ came Tulyet’s voice at his elbow. The Sheriff perched on the wall’s rim and grinned at Bartholomew. The children closed in again, and Tulyet tossed a few half-pennies towards them, more to be rid of their clamouring than as an act of charity. ‘I had hopes you were a smuggler hiding his ill-gotten gains when I saw you here,’ he said to the physician.

‘This water must be foul indeed to emit such a stench,’ said Bartholomew, his mind on the well and not on the Sheriff’s banter. ‘No wonder people become sick when they drink it.’

The bucket for drawing water was usually secured on a hook to one side, but the last person to use it had left it down inside the well. Bartholomew began to pull it up, so that he could inspect the water more closely. It was stuck, and Tulyet helped him to heave it free, before sitting down again and relating a tale of how he had found an outlaw camp so recently abandoned that the fire still smouldered. Bartholomew’s mind was half on his task and half on Tulyet’s story.

‘God’s teeth!’ exclaimed Bartholomew, so violently that Tulyet jumped and almost toppled into the well himself. The Sheriff recovered his balance and twisted round to see the cause of Bartholomew’s shock, gasping in horror when he saw what had snagged on the metal handle of the bucket.

‘Is that what I think it is?’ he asked in a whisper, tearing his gaze from the grisly object to look at Bartholomew.

Bartholomew met his eyes. ‘It is a human ear,’ he said.

‘I think that is all,’ yelled Bartholomew from the depths of the well. His voice echoed eerily around the stone walls, muffled by the scarf he wore wound tightly round his mouth and nose. He glanced up, seeing the sky as a circle of bright white high above, broken by dark shapes as Tulyet and Michael peered down. He coughed, beginning to feel nauseated by the sulphurous stench of foul water and the still air that sat at the bottom of the shaft.

He poked around for the last time with the pole he held, and then felt the bucket in which he stood precariously begin to rise. His balance went and he all but fell into the fetid water. The bucket stopped moving.

‘Are you all right?’ came Tulyet’s voice.

Bartholomew tried to shout back, but he was becoming overwhelmed from inhaling the rank odour of bad water, and he was not certain that the sound he made had carried to Tulyet above. The bucket began to move again, more quickly this time, swinging to and fro, and bumping him against the sides of the well. He felt his cold hands begin to slip on the rope and forced himself to hold on tighter. He glanced upwards. The circle of white was still a long way off.

He closed his eyes tightly, and tried to concentrate on remaining upright in the swaying bucket. He should have tied himself in, he thought, wincing as the wooden container slammed against the stone shaft, sending booming echoes all around. The pole slipped from under his arm and clattered down to the black depths beneath him, entering the water with a dull splash. He opened his eyes and saw with relief that he was almost at the top. As his head drew level with the rim of the well wall, he gulped in mouthfuls of fresh air.

‘Take my arm,’ said Michael, leaning in.

Bartholomew released the rope with one hand and reached towards Michael, but his other hand was simply too cold and numb to support his weight on its own. With horror, Bartholomew felt it slide off the rope and the bucket tip sideways to pitch him back down the well. But his fall was jolted to a stop almost before it had begun, and he felt Michael grip his wrist, all but dislocating his shoulder as he hung suspended by one hand. Others reached down to grab him and he was hauled out of the well, to kneel gasping and choking for breath on the ground nearby.

‘That was close,’ said Michael shakily, wiping his forehead with a mucky rag. ‘You almost had me down there with you.’

Bartholomew tugged the scarf from his face and gratefully accepted a cup of wine someone pushed into his hand.

‘Matilde!’ he exclaimed in pleasure. ‘Why are you here?’

‘Half the town is here,’ she said, gesturing to where a crowd had gathered. ‘It would look suspicious if I remained at home. It is not every day that a corpse is discovered in one of our wells.’

Bartholomew coughed again and Matilde thumped him on his back.

‘You are getting too old for this kind of thing,’ she teased. ‘You should let your students do it. Rob Deynman offered to go.’

Bartholomew looked to where his student was warding off those people who would have come to ask Bartholomew questions before he had recovered his breath — including Harling, which was risky, and Edith, which was downright rash — and smiled.

‘How is Dame Pelagia?’ he asked softly, even though no one else was near.

Matilde smiled. ‘In better health than you at the moment, and splendid company. She had told me stories beyond my wildest imaginings.’

Bartholomew shot her a curious glance and wondered what kind of life Dame Pelagia had led to enable her to tell tales to astonish the worldly-wise Matilde. The uncharitable thought flashed through his mind that they might have been in the same business before Pelagia undertook her monastic vocation. Or was he being unfair?

Matilde helped Bartholomew to his feet and Edith came rushing towards him.

‘What were you thinking of, volunteering to go down there?’ she demanded angrily, hands on hips. ‘It was a dangerous thing to do!’

‘Someone had to do it,’ he said, fending her off. ‘And I am less sensitive about this kind of thing than most.’

Edith sighed and exchanged a look of resignation with Matilde. ‘You do not deserve good women to worry over you,’ she said. She hesitated and looked away towards the river. ‘My words were over-hasty yesterday. I know you meant no offence to Oswald and I am sorry we quarrelled with each other.’

Bartholomew rubbed his eyes and smiled wanly. ‘I should have thought before I made such an accusation. But Thorpe-’

Edith raised her finger to stop him from speaking. ‘We will only argue again if we pursue that subject. It is enough that we are friends again.’ She embraced him in a sudden fierce hug. ‘There. Now Master Harling wants you, and the Sheriff is waiting.’

Bartholomew left her, and went to where Michael and Tulyet stood over the body that he had recovered from the well. Harling bustled up, smoothing down his immaculate tabard where Deynman had dared to lay his hands on it.

‘That boy is a menace,’ he said to Bartholomew, glowering at Deynman over his shoulder. ‘I am tempted to pass him through his disputations simply to remove him from the town.’

‘I might hold you to that,’ said Michael opportunistically. ‘I have been wondering how Michaelhouse might raise sufficient funds to buy him a degree.’

Tulyet bent down to lift the cover from the face of the dead man, so that Bartholomew could see it. He was not familiar, but had been in the water for at least a month and his features were all but unrecognisable. Harling glanced down and shuddered, looking away quickly.

‘His own mother would not know him,’ said Tulyet, regarding the Vice-Chancellor sympathetically. ‘But his red tunic suggested to me that he might be one of Thomas Deschalers’s lads. I just asked Deschalers if any are missing, and he informed me that one of his apprentices left Cambridge about a month ago, rather abruptly, leaving a note that said he was going to become a monk. Apparently the lad was given to unpredictable behaviour, and Deschalers did not give it another thought. I suspect this is him, and that he found God in a way he did not anticipate. His death cannot be natural.’

‘He must be the apprentice Father Philius was called to attend at Oswald’s house,’ said Bartholomew, kneeling next to the body. ‘There are still blisters just visible on his lips and if I look in his mouth-’

‘Not here, Matthew,’ said Harling, touching him on the shoulder and glancing nervously at the crowd that watched them.

‘Why not?’ muttered Michael. ‘You realise, Master Harling, that you are depriving Matt of a God-sent opportunity to revolt at least thirty people all at once — Edith and Matilde among them.’

Bartholomew glanced up at the crowd, many looking with horrified eyes at the bloated features of the apprentice. He pulled the cover over the dead man’s face to hide it from sight and stood up, brushing mud from his knees.

‘I would say, from the blisters and the time he has been in the water, that he is almost certainly the apprentice Philius saw dead,’ said Bartholomew. ‘What was his name?’

‘Will Harper,’ said Tulyet.

‘So that solves one mystery,’ said Michael to Bartholomew. ‘Philius was summoned in a belated attempt to help an apprentice who died after drinking poisoned wine. After Philius left, the body must have been bundled down the well to hide it.’

‘And the cases of fever started about three weeks ago,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Which would be about sufficient time for the body to begin festering in the water. No wonder people became ill! I was wrong about the river after all.’

‘But correct in your theory that the fever was caused by poisoned water from this well,’ said Michael. ‘That a corpse was responsible is not an explanation that springs readily to mind. You cannot be blamed for not guessing that.’

Bartholomew shook his head, disgusted with himself. ‘I should have checked the well earlier. I even told you about the similar case I had seen in Greece, where the cause was a dead goat in a stream. I should have known.’

Tulyet’s men loaded the body onto a cart and took it away, leaving an ominous trail of water behind it. Realising there was nothing more to be seen, the crowd began to break up, talking about the incident in hushed voices as they went. Bartholomew looked around for Matilde, but she had already gone, and Edith was busily ushering her husband’s apprentices homewards.

‘So,’ said Michael, to distract Bartholomew from looking too obviously for Matilde as they began to walk back to Michaelhouse. ‘We can now be certain that Philius spoke the truth. He claimed to have seen a dead apprentice and here is the body. Philius assumed the lad was Stanmore’s because he had been called to Stanmore’s premises, and thus misled us. And the blisters around this apprentice’s mouth suggest that he met his death in the same way as did Armel.’

‘Oswald does not approve of his apprentices drinking,’ said Bartholomew, ‘although they have developed a number of ingenious plans to deceive him. I suspect that this was one such plan that went terribly wrong.’

‘Let us recap what we know. One of Oswald’s lads — Thorpe, no doubt — bought the wine in the Brazen George, as seen by Gray and his cronies, but it was Will Harper who drank it. When he became ill, they called Philius — not you, because they knew you would have told Stanmore — but when Philius declared him dead, they decided to hide the body and send Deschalers a note purporting to be from Harper saying he was bound for the cloister.’

Bartholomew nodded. ‘The whole plan is the kind of ill-conceived venture frightened teenagers might dream up, not anticipating that the corpse would poison the well or that Father Philius might mention the incident to someone else. Poor Isaac probably felt perfectly justified in confiscating the wine from them when he went with Philius to Oswald’s house that night.’

‘But he died for it,’ said Michael soberly. ‘And so did Philius. Did these apprentices, emboldened by their success in ridding themselves of Will Harper’s corpse, kill Isaac for stealing their wine?’

‘No,’ said Bartholomew, frowning in concentration. ‘The people who killed Isaac also stole the bottles from Michaelhouse and terrified Walter out of his wits. And, anyway, you saw the killers as they knocked you over — you did not mention that they were the size of Oswald’s apprentices.’

‘They were not,’ said Michael as they stepped through the wicket-gate into Michaelhouse. ‘Two at least were bigger than Thorpe. But I cannot think on an empty stomach. I am off to the kitchen to see if Agatha has left anything edible lying around. Are you coming?’

Bartholomew walked with him. ‘It is beginning to make sense. At least we know Philius was telling the truth. And Oswald, too,’ he added.

‘I suppose so,’ said Michael. ‘But things would be much clearer if your sister would allow us to talk to Thorpe. And I would certainly feel easier if I knew what had happened to Sacks’s last bottle of wine.’

‘I would feel easier if Thorpe were under lock and key,’ said Bartholomew vehemently. He paused, his hand on the kitchen door. ‘Do you think Edith and Oswald are safe? What if he tries to give the wine to them?’

‘They are protecting him, Matt,’ said Michael. ‘He is unlikely to harm them as long as they offer sanctuary from the unwanted attentions of the big, bad Senior Proctor and his henchmen.’

He opened the door to the kitchen, and Bartholomew headed gratefully towards the fire that roared in the hearth. The room was cosy and warm, and smelled of baking bread, stale grease and the sharper odour of burning logs. It was familiar, comfortable and went some way to dispelling the memory of being down the narrow stone chimney with the rotting corpse of Deschalers’s apprentice.

Michael was in the act of stretching fat white fingers towards a plate of freshly baked cakes, that Agatha had rashly left unattended, when Cynric burst in.

‘That Rob Thorpe was watching as the body was pulled from the well,’ he said breathlessly. ‘So I followed him after your sister took him and the others home. He was definitely anxious and left Master Stanmore’s house a few moments later.’

‘Oh? And where did he go this time?’ asked Michael, spraying the front of his habit with cake crumbs as he spoke. ‘St Mary’s Church for the mystery plays? To St Botolph’s Church to pray?’

Cynric shot him a mystified look. ‘To the Hall of Valence Marie.’

Rain began to fall again as Michael and Bartholomew walked up the High Street towards Valence Marie. Although it was only early afternoon, the light was poor, and in one or two of the wealthier houses lamps already gleamed behind glazed windows. Tradesmen from the Market Square were already giving up for the day, and carts of all shapes and sizes were trundling towards the Trumpington Gate. There was a multitude of smells, from the warm, damp odour of trampled manure to the acidic stench of urine that trickled down the ditches at the side of the street, widening into little ponds where they were blocked with offal from the butcher’s shop and rotten vegetable parings from the Brazen George.

The rain made the town seem drab and dismal. The thatches of roofs were dull and sodden, dripping brown rivulets of mould down the walls of the few houses the owners of which had bothered to paint. The others, chiefly wattle-anddaub, were scruffy with crumbling plaster, and everywhere was filth-impregnated mud. Bartholomew glanced up at the heavy grey clouds that slouched overhead and felt they matched his mood. The desire to see Thorpe confess to his crime, that he had felt so strongly when he had first recognised him, was tempered by the knowledge that Edith would hate him for it.

As they reached the junction between the High Street and Piron Lane, they met Edith herself, with her husband and one of his smaller apprentices. Bartholomew started backwards guiltily, wondering if she already knew where they were going and why.

‘What are you two up to?’ demanded Edith suspiciously. ‘You look positively furtive.’

Michael gave one of his most winning smiles, which served to make Edith more wary than ever. ‘University business, madam,’ he said suavely.

‘I suppose this University business involves Rob Thorpe?’ asked Stanmore bluntly. Bartholomew could not meet his eyes, and even Michael was hard pressed to lie so blatantly.

‘If the lad has done nothing wrong, he has nothing to fear,’ said the monk eventually. ‘What harm is there in our speaking with him? You can be present to ensure we treat him fairly.’

Edith was reluctant. ‘But he has had nightmares!’ she protested. ‘He would be angry if he thought I had told you, but he wakes in the night and cries.’

Perhaps there was hope for him after all, thought Bartholomew, if he felt a degree of remorse for what he had done.

‘We will handle him with care,’ said Michael. ‘We want only to ask him a few questions.’

Edith sighed and exchanged a glance with her husband and then gestured to the apprentice who stood between them. He was holding Edith’s hand, and the dark green tunic that reached the knees of most of Stanmore’s boys was almost at his ankles. He had a head of coarse ginger hair, and a smattering of orange freckles on both cheeks and across his nose. His eyes were swollen, as though he had been crying, and he clutched at Edith’s fingers harder than ever when Bartholomew and Michael looked at him.

‘We were actually coming to see you anyway,’ said Edith miserably. ‘Francis has something he would like to say.’

Francis looked as if he would like to say nothing at all, and stared uncomfortably at his feet.

‘Come on,’ said Stanmore, patting Francis’s tousled hair encouragingly. ‘They will not eat you.’

Francis glanced up at Brother Michael, uncertainly. ‘Rob Thorpe has gone,’ he said unhappily. ‘He made us promise not to tell Master Stanmore until tomorrow.’

‘Made you?’ asked Michael gently.

He hooked a finger under the boy’s chin, so that he looked up. Francis began to cry, and Michael drew the apprentice towards him, placing two large hands on his shoulders. Bartholomew was surprised to see the fat monk patient and gentle, but remembered Michael was popular with the youngsters in his choir, and possessed a talent for dealing with children that few who knew him would suspect he had.

‘You must tell us, Francis,’ said Michael, kindly but firmly. ‘It is important. Your friend Rob might be in some danger.’

‘Danger?’ wept Francis. ‘Not him! It was we who were in danger. I hate him!’

‘Did he bully you?’ asked Michael. ‘Did he make threats?’

‘All the time!’ howled Francis. ‘We all hated him, and we are all glad he has gone. He made us lie to you about where he was last Saturday. I do not know where he was: he was not with us. And I do not know where he is now, but I am glad it is not here.’

‘No wonder you thought your apprentices were listless,’ said Bartholomew in an undertone to Stanmore. ‘You were worried that they were ill, but it seems as though they were subdued because they were terrified of Thorpe.’

‘There is no need to belabour the point, Matt,’ said Stanmore bitterly. ‘It seems we were wrong and you were right. Rob has taken his belongings from our house — along with all my petty cash, a ring Cynric gave to my seamstress and the necklace of your mother’s that Edith loved so much. The other apprentices were so relieved to see him gone that they were capering around their dormitory like lunatics. That is how I discovered he had left before the time they were supposed to tell me.’

‘And do you know anything of a dead apprentice?’ asked Michael of Francis.

Francis went silent, while Edith gazed at Michael in disbelief. ‘Not this again,’ she groaned. ‘How many more times must we tell you? None of our lads is missing!’

‘Not one of us,’ said Francis, raising a white face to Edith. ‘Will Harper, Rob Thorpe’s cousin. He was a bully, too, and they brought that wine into our dormitory even though they knew you would be angry. Then, today, Will Harper was dragged out of the well. It was him, wasn’t it?’

Michael nodded and Edith put a comforting arm around Francis’s thin shoulders. The apprentice took a shuddering breath, and continued his story.

‘The two of them — Rob Thorpe and Will Harper — took the wine to the far end of the room and started to drink it. Then Rob started yelling at Will, but he was lying on the floor in a swoon. Rob sent me for Father Philius — I wanted to get Doctor Bartholomew, but Rob told me not to. Philius said there was nothing he could do, and Rob made us carry Will to one of the storerooms. He said Will had died because the Devil had come up through the floor and snatched his soul away. He said the same would happen to us if we told anyone what had happened.’

He paused and gave a great, wet sniff, rubbing his nose on his sleeve. Michael waited patiently while Francis composed himself.

‘The next day, we looked in the storeroom, but Will had gone. Rob said he had recovered, and had gone to join a monastery to be safe from the Devil if he should come again.’

‘Did you believe him?’ asked Michael. ‘That Will was still alive, even after Father Philius had pronounced him dead?’

Francis sniffed again and nodded. ‘We all wanted him gone — whether to a monastery or the Devil we did not care. But he was in the well, yes? So he is really dead this time and will not come back to haunt us?’

‘He is really dead, Francis,’ said Michael softly. ‘Thank you for having the courage to speak out. I promise neither Rob Thorpe nor Will Harper will be coming back to torment you.’

Francis burst into tears, his face buried in Michael’s habit. Michael ruffled his hair comfortingly. ‘You seem to have nursed a viper at your breast,’ he said to Edith.

‘This cannot be happening,’ said Edith, looking from where Francis sobbed into Michael’s ample girth to her husband. ‘We have always been gentle with Rob. I felt sorry for him, his father being disgraced and all.’

‘It may have been your very gentleness that made him bitter,’ said Michael.

‘Do you think his father encouraged him in this?’ asked Stanmore, white faced.

Michael shook his head. ‘I sincerely doubt it. Bitter and angry at his dismissal he might have been, but he would never have stooped to anything like this. And he certainly would not have encouraged his son to engage in anything so vile.’

‘Are you sure?’ pressed Edith.

Bartholomew put a comforting hand on her shoulder, seeing how she was clutching at straws in her desperation to shift the blame from the apprentice to someone else. It would not be easy for her to accept that the boy she had welcomed so generously into her household had repaid her kindness with such deception and wickedness.

Michael nodded. ‘I am sure. I believe poor Master Thorpe will be appalled when he learns about the havoc his son has wreaked on his behalf. But enough of this wretched little ingrate. Go home, Edith. I think your other boys might need you now. They will be frightened and will need reassuring.’

Edith gave a wan smile. ‘Thank you, Michael. You have been kind.’ She prised the sobbing Francis from Michael and turned away to take him home. ‘I still hope you are wrong,’ she said in a small voice, not looking back at them.

‘So do I,’ said Stanmore, watching her go. ‘This will break her heart, Matt. Rob was a favourite of hers. I think he reminds her of you when you were that age.’

Bartholomew, recalling Thorpe’s gloating smiles of triumph and murderous inclinations, sincerely hoped he was mistaken. ‘I suppose we had better see if he has fled to Valence Marie,’ he said, anxious to be away from Stanmore and his distress, since he felt as though he were at least partly responsible for it.

Stanmore gave a huge sigh. ‘I suppose I should come with you to help you find Rob,’ he said, ‘but I have no stomach for this sort of confrontation. The University is no place for honest traders.’

They left him sitting disconsolately on the low wall surrounding St Mary’s churchyard.

‘What do you plan to do?’ Bartholomew asked of Michael as they walked along the High Street. ‘Will you use Thorpe to flush out his accomplice?’

Michael stared at him and pursed his lips. ‘Eligius? I think he is far too clever to be startled into a confession by us confronting Thorpe.’

‘Thorpe strikes me as the sort of person who will try to blame someone else if he sees the net closing in on him,’ said Bartholomew. ‘I am sure he will betray Eligius in an instant if he thinks it will work to his advantage.’

Michael nodded slowly. ‘It is worth a try, I suppose.’

Bartholomew rubbed a hand through his hair. ‘This is a vile business. It has led us to consider how we will bring pressure to bear on someone who is little more than a child to force him to betray his accomplices’ identities.’

‘He is seventeen years old, Matt. He is a man, and he is certainly old enough to commit murder,’ Michael pointed out. He studied Bartholomew’s face, and saw the conflicting emotions there. ‘Edith cannot hold you responsible for Thorpe’s crimes. Grene was foully murdered, and it does not take a genius to predict that dropping a corpse down a well might poison the water. Yet Harper’s body was disposed of with a total disregard for the health of the people who live nearby.’

‘Do you think he was so calculating?’ asked Bartholomew doubtfully. ‘It strikes me that Thorpe is more careless than malicious — he saw the well as a convenient dump and used it without considering the consequences.’

‘Ask the poor people who have been drinking that tainted water whether they give a damn what Thorpe’s intentions were,’ snapped Michael. ‘And you, of all people, should not be excusing his actions, since you have been so desperately trying to physic those who have been ill. Thorpe might be little more than a child, Matt, but he must be apprehended before he does anyone else harm. And you had better hope you are successful because, now Edith and Oswald are no longer protecting him, Thorpe might well turn on them.’

Bartholomew did not reply, but followed Michael through the Trumpington Gate. He was left behind when he recognised one of the guards as a fever victim, and stopped to enquire after his health. By the time he caught up again, Michael was engaged in a fierce altercation with the porter in the porch of the Hall of Valence Marie.

‘You cannot come in. There is a formal dinner in progress.’

‘I have not come to dine,’ said Michael stiffly. ‘I have come to look for a young man who may have committed murder, and may be planning to do so again.’

‘But the Countess is here,’ objected the porter. ‘The Countess of Pembroke, our benefactor. She and the Fellows are having a private meal. I cannot let them be disturbed. I would lose my job.’

‘Michael!’ exclaimed Bartholomew. ‘The Countess! Thorpe is in there with the Countess, and there is still a bottle of poisoned wine unaccounted for!’

Michael stared at him for a moment, and then shook his head. ‘So? He can hardly do her harm at the dinner table.’

‘Why not? He managed with Grene,’ said Bartholomew, and, ignoring the protests of the porter, he forced his way through the door, across the cobbled yard and threw open the heavy wooden door to Valence Marie’s spacious hall.

Acting-Master Eligius and his colleagues were just taking their places at the high table on the dais when Bartholomew charged in, Michael at his heels. Valence Marie’s servants had gone to some trouble to make the Countess’s visit a memorable one: the table was covered by an embroidered cloth, and all the College silver was out, polished until it shone. Delicious smells came from behind the painted screen opposite the hearth, where serving-boys waited to bring out the platters of meat that had been prepared in the kitchens. It would be cold, but very little cooked food was served hot in Cambridge Colleges, given that the kitchens were usually some distance from the refectories. Michaelhouse occasionally managed warm oatmeal, but that was about all.

At the seat of honour, in the centre of the table, the Countess was reaching for the goblet of wine set for her.

‘No!’ yelled Bartholomew, freezing the movements of all and sundry. ‘The wine, madam! Do not touch the wine!’

There was an appalled silence, until the Countess recovered from her surprise. Bartholomew had not taken much notice of her during the installation, and noted now that she was older than he had initially thought. Money for cosmetics and fine clothes made her appear younger than her years, especially from a distance, although tell-tale wrinkles around her throat and a worldly look in her eyes betrayed her. She wore a robe of rich blue with flowing sleeves that brushed the ground. Her fingers were laden with so many rings that Bartholomew was surprised she could still use her hands, and a ruby pendant around her neck glistened like a clot of blood.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ she demanded imperiously, her hand arrested in the very act of lifting the goblet to her lips. ‘Who are you to burst in unannounced and issue orders?’

Bartholomew walked towards her. ‘I am sorry, my lady,’ he said, ‘but I have reason to believe that the wine you have been served might be tainted with a poison.’ He pointed at Thorpe, clad in his light blue tunic and with his hair hastily darkened with soot, standing just behind her. ‘He has already killed Master Grene.’

The Countess looked at her cup suspiciously, and twisted round in her chair to look at Thorpe.

‘I know this man!’ exclaimed Thorpe suddenly, pointing at Bartholomew. ‘He is a lunatic from the hospital run by the Austin Canons. You should have him removed — he might be dangerous.’

‘The boy lies,’ said Michael, striding forward. ‘My colleague’s name is Doctor Bartholomew, and he is a Fellow of Michaelhouse. I am Brother Michael, the University’s Senior Proctor. I beg you, madam, do not touch the wine.’

The Countess looked at Valence Marie’s Fellows impatiently, waiting for them to explain what was happening. ‘What is going on, Father Eligius? Is this man Brother Michael as he claims?’

Eligius rose, his Dominican habit hanging in untidy folds from his narrow shoulders, and opened his mouth to speak.

‘He is not!’ cried Thorpe desperately, before the logician could respond. ‘The good Canons at the hospital must be in their cups today to let two madmen escape!’

‘Test it,’ said Michael coolly. ‘Give the wine to an animal. Better still, let Thorpe try it for you. If there is nothing wrong with it, he will not mind obliging.’

‘Thorpe?’ asked the Countess, turning her head again to stare at the apprentice. ‘But he is in York.’ She looked more closely. ‘You are his relative?’

Thorpe bolted, clambering over the table and sending dishes and bottles flying, only to run straight into the iron embrace of Michael. He struggled violently, but uselessly.

‘It was not me!’ he yelled, frightened now. ‘It was him!’ His flailing hand encompassed at least half the room.

‘Who?’ asked the Countess coldly. ‘And what was not you?’

‘It was him! Grene!’ yelled Thorpe.

‘This is nonsense,’ said Eligius. ‘The boy is raving. Grene is dead.’

‘What is Master Grene supposed to have done?’ the Countess asked impatiently, addressing the struggling Thorpe.

‘Poison!’ screamed Thorpe. ‘It was his idea. He forced me!’

The Countess indicated that Michael should let Thorpe go. Michael hesitated, but the sudden flash of anger in the Countess’s eyes convinced him that she was unused to having her orders disobeyed, and that she certainly did not like it. Thorpe shrugged himself out of Michael’s relaxed grip and advanced towards her.

‘You must believe me, good lady,’ he sobbed, taking her hand and gazing up into her face. ‘I am innocent of all this. I bought two bottles of wine from a thief in a tavern. I did not know it at the time, but they were poisoned, and one killed my cousin when he drank it. I came to Master Grene, who was my father’s best friend, for help. He suggested we throw my cousin’s body down the well, and told me to serve the other to him during the installation. He said it would avenge the wrong done to my father and would serve Bingham right.’

‘You suggest that Master Grene encouraged you to poison him at the installation?’ asked the Countess, scepticism written clear in her face.

‘Yes!’ said Thorpe desperately. ‘He made me! It was all his idea.’

‘Unlikely though it seems, he might be telling the truth,’ whispered Bartholomew to Michael. ‘Philius told me that Grene had been diagnosed with a fatal illness. If he was as bitter as everyone believes about Bingham’s election, it is entirely possible he might have decided to exchange his last few painful months for a quick death — and at the same time, take the opportunity to strike at Bingham in a most spectacular way.’

‘Suicide?’ whispered Michael uncertainly. ‘I do not think so. He would go straight to hell.’

‘Perhaps he did not see it so,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Or perhaps he was so eaten up with resentment and envy that he did not care.’

‘It would certainly explain his morose manner that night,’ muttered Michael. ‘Most people would have at least tried to be a little more gracious in defeat.’

‘Why do you two whisper so?’ called the Countess in aggrieved tones. ‘If you have something to say, say it aloud so we can all hear.’

She sounded like a schoolmaster, thought Bartholomew. Before he could respond, Eligius had stepped forward, his dark habit swinging several inches above his thin white ankles.

‘I apologise for this unseemly interruption, my lady,’ he said. He looked hard at Thorpe. ‘This boy has served at our high table on occasion recently, but I did not know he was a relative of Master Thorpe. We know him only as Rob. Yet I cannot believe that Brother Michael’s accusations are true. I am certain Grene’s death was at the hands of Bingham — as indeed I told the Sheriff when I petitioned for his arrest. I have already told you of how poor Grene voiced his fears to me the night before his death. So, I believe Rob will not mind tasting the wine, to assure you of his innocence.’

He picked up the Countess’s cup and held it out to Thorpe with an encouraging smile.

‘I do not like wine,’ said Thorpe, licking his lips nervously. ‘It makes my head swim.’

‘In that case,’ said Eligius, ‘let us put an end to this nonsense here and now.’ Before Bartholomew or Michael could stop him, he had put the cup to his lips and drained it in a single draught. There was a deathly hush in the hall. Eligius replaced the cup on the table and raised his hands. ‘Well, Brother? I am still here. I am not struck down in an instant like Grene. You have clearly been mistaken in your logic.’

Michael gazed at him in disbelief. Thorpe’s disbelief, however, was the greater. He looked at Eligius in horror and the blood drained from his face, leaving him an unhealthy grey-white colour.

‘You seem to have made a grave mistake, Brother Michael,’ said the Countess. ‘You have accused a young man of a vile crime of which he appears to be wholly guiltless.’

She rested her elbows on the table and steepled her beringed fingers. Meanwhile, Eligius walked around the table to the seat next to her and sat, leaning back in his chair to fix his gaze on Michael and wait for an explanation. Michael strode forward and seized the cup, his face almost as pale as Thorpe’s. For quite some time there was no sound in the hall as everyone watched Michael staring at the goblet. Bartholomew racked his brains for an answer, but he had been so convinced that Rob Thorpe had intended to harm the Countess, for some warped reason of his own, that his mind was nothing but a blank. As far as Bartholomew was concerned, Eligius should be gasping his last, his lips and throat blistering from the same poison that had killed Grene, not reclining easily in his chair with his bony hands folded in his lap.

Eventually, when the Countess began to show signs of impatience, and the mutters of the cook at the rear of the hall that the food was spoiling grew embarrassingly audible, Michael spoke.

‘I am sorry,’ he said, turning the cup over in his hands in bewilderment. ‘I was certain we were correct in our beliefs. You see, we reasoned that Thorpe had killed Grene using one of six bottles of wine sold by a thief named Sacks. An apprentice — Thorpe’s cousin — was dredged from the well today and his body shows similar signs of poisoning as those we observed on James Grene.’

The Countess pulled a face of disgust. ‘I heard about the body in the well. But it seems as though your reasoning is flawed, Brother. Why should Thorpe — or anyone else for that matter — poison me? I am no candidate for the Mastership, and I played no part in his father’s dismissal.’

Michael raised his hands in defeat and took a few steps towards the Countess. ‘What can I say? I am sorry, my lady. My only thought was that you might be in danger, and I acted without giving the matter sufficient thought. But despite Father Eligius’s conviction regarding Bingham’s guilt, Thorpe has admitted that he gave the poisoned wine to Grene, and we must be allowed to question him further on the matter. He has also stolen from his employer. If he will come with us now, we will leave, and you will be able to finish your meal in peace.’

He turned to Eligius, whose eyes were closed, as if in prayer. For the third time since their dramatic entry, there was a heavy silence as everyone waited for him to give Michael permission to take Thorpe away. Thorpe swallowed hard as Bartholomew looked more closely at Eligius, and then he darted past them, aiming for the door and freedom. Bartholomew dived at him, and both went tumbling to the floor. Thorpe scratched, kicked and bit like an animal as Bartholomew fought to pin him down. The Countess leapt to her feet.

‘For God’s sake!’ she exclaimed in angry exasperation. ‘Eligius has just proved the boy’s innocence: Bingham killed poor Grene and there is an end to it. Eligius? Order Brother Michael and this brawling physician to leave my presence at once. I will not be insulted in this way!’

‘Eligius will not be ordering anything ever again,’ gasped Bartholomew, still struggling with Thorpe. ‘He is dying.’

It was not until much later that Bartholomew and Michael were able to leave Valence Marie and go to make their report to Harling. He listened to their description of events in silence.

‘So,’ he said, when Michael had finished. ‘Thorpe maintains the whole affair was Grene’s idea?’

Michael nodded, leaning back against the wall and folding his arms. ‘He says he fled to Grene — his father’s best friend — when Will Harper died from the poisoned wine. Apparently, Thorpe and Harper liked to drink together — Stanmore disapproves of his apprentices frequenting taverns and had forbidden Thorpe to meet his cousin on pain of dismissal from his service. When Harper died on Stanmore’s premises, Thorpe was afraid he would be sacked for disobedience — or, worse, that he would be accused of his cousin’s murder. Thorpe described Harper’s quick, and seemingly painless, death to Grene, and Grene conceived the notion of revenge for them both.’

He rubbed his chin, and continued. ‘According to Philius, Grene was dying anyway, and had very little to lose. His death at the installation was not as painless as Thorpe had probably led him to believe it would be, but the rest of the plan went perfectly. Over the previous week, Grene made claims to three other Fellows that he was in fear of his life from Bingham, including to Father Eligius on the eve of his death. The scene was set: Grene died; Bingham was arrested for his murder; Grene was avenged for his defeat; and Rob had struck a blow against the College that he felt had wronged his father over the business of the false relic.’

Harling swallowed hard. ‘And this Rob Thorpe is just seventeen, you say? Yet he plotted all this murder and mayhem?’

Michael shrugged. ‘With Grene’s help. But perhaps he is not wholly without hope. Edith Stanmore told us he has been having nightmares over the last month or so, and all that time he spent in St Botolph’s Church — such as when we thought he had fled to his accomplice — must count for something. He was clearly suffering from remorse.’

‘But not enough to prevent him from attempting to murder the Countess,’ remarked Bartholomew, recalling Thorpe’s gloating expression when Edith and Stanmore had prevented Bartholomew from hauling him off to the Proctors’ cells after he had gone to inspect Egil’s mutilated corpse.

Harling was silent, shaking his head slowly and looking down at his ink-stained table. ‘What bitterness,’ he said at last. ‘I, too, lost an election, but it never occurred to me to poison myself so that Tynkell would be blamed for my murder.’

‘But you are not fatally ill,’ Bartholomew pointed out.

Harling began to speak again before Bartholomew could moderate his remark so it did not sound as if he believed Harling might well have conceived such a plan given the right conditions.

‘So circumstances were simply opportune,’ mused the Vice-Chancellor. ‘The poisoned wine coming into Thorpe’s possession merely provided Grene with an opportunity for revenge that he had been considering for some time.’

‘So it would seem,’ said Michael, standing and walking to the window. ‘And it might have worked, had Thorpe left the town quietly after the installation as he had promised Grene he would. But Bingham’s arrest was not enough for him. He decided to commit one last act of vengeance before leaving Cambridge to join his father in York.’

‘The Countess?’ asked Harling.

Michael nodded. ‘But by this stage he had no more of Sacks’s wine left: one of his bottles had killed his cousin and then been stolen by Isaac; the other he had used to kill Grene.’ He gestured that Bartholomew should continue.

‘Father Philius’s medical notes showed that he had prescribed a powerful opiate for Grene to use should the pain of his illness become too great. Thorpe confessed to Michael that he took this from Grene’s room after the installation. He then mixed all of it with the wine he planned to serve the Countess when she visited Valence Marie.’

‘So this was premeditated,’ said Harling sadly. ‘Thorpe planned to murder the Countess as long ago as last Saturday.’

Michael nodded. ‘I imagine he was encouraged by the ease with which he helped Grene to his death, and so decided to try it once again. And his reason, of course, was that by murdering Valence Marie’s benefactor, he would assure the College’s dissolution. His bag was already packed so that he could flee the moment he saw the Countess swallow the wine. He was appalled when Eligius drank it, and probably anticipated that he would keel over immediately.’

‘And he did not?’ asked Harling. ‘Not like Grene?’

‘No,’ answered Bartholomew. ‘This opiate is slower acting and less dramatic than the poison in the wine Sacks sold him. By the time we realised there was something wrong, it was too late to do anything to save Eligius. He had fallen into a deep sleep and could not be roused. His breathing grew shallower and slower until it stopped completely; he died about an hour ago.’

‘So Eligius’s faith in Grene’s claims and his belief in Bingham’s guilt, brought about his own death?’ asked Harling.

‘I suppose it might be viewed like that,’ said Michael. He sat back down on the wall bench so heavily that Bartholomew was forced to grab the table lest he be catapulted from the other end. ‘But let us not forget the role the relic played in all this.’

‘Ah, yes. The relic,’ said Harling heavily. ‘I wish to God that foul thing had never been found. It has been nothing but trouble ever since it emerged from the foul black mud of the King’s Ditch. If I were Chancellor, I would throw it back, where it can do no more harm.’

‘Eligius was convinced that the relic was genuine — as was Grene,’ said Michael. ‘Bingham, on the other hand, has the sense to see it for what it really is — a monstrous fraud foisted on the town by an evil man. Part of Eligius’s conviction that Bingham killed Grene stemmed from that, despite the fact that it was an illogical conclusion to draw.’

‘Even great minds like Eligius’s can be confounded when it comes to matters of faith,’ said Harling. ‘He told Chancellor Tynkell and me that he sensed an aura of holiness emanating from the relic, and that its purity and goodness touched his soul. It is difficult to argue with someone who has convictions like that.’

Bartholomew recalled Eligius standing with him and Michael as they inspected Grene’s body, and the fleeting expression of remorse that had crossed his face. It was not simply faith in Grene’s claims nor belief in Bingham’s guilt, nor even his total conviction that the relic was holy, that had prompted him to drink the Countess’s wine: it was his own troubled conscience — that Grene had come to him with his fears and he had done nothing about them. Bartholomew was sure that Eligius held himself responsible for Grene’s death, which explained why he had initiated his own quest to have Bingham indicted of his murder. He had even gone to the Sheriff and made out a case for Bingham’s arrest, because he felt he could not wait for the Senior Proctor to return from dealing with the burglary at St Clement’s Hostel.

Harling sighed. ‘I am certain poor Master Thorpe knows nothing of his son’s plans for revenge,’ he said. ‘There is some talk that the King has regretted his hasty decision in removing Thorpe from the Mastership, and is considering reinstating him. He will be aghast when he hears what his son has done.’

Bartholomew felt sick at the futility of it all. ‘Please do not tell Edith Master Thorpe might be reinstated. All this is hard enough for her to accept without the knowledge that Rob’s drive to avenge his father’s unjust treatment was all for nothing.’

Harling and Michael were silent, so that Bartholomew wondered whether his request had already come too late. For all he knew, Master Thorpe was already riding south to reclaim his post as head of Valence Marie.

Michael stretched his legs out in front of him. ‘So, Rob Thorpe is lodged in the Proctors’ gaol, the Countess is safe, and Bingham is freed from his cell in the castle. But we still do not know how Sacks came by this poisonous wine.’

‘We know it must be related to the smuggling in the Fens,’ said Bartholomew. ‘Hopefully, we will find out who was responsible when Tulyet arrests the contrabanders.’

‘And then there is still the missing bottle,’ said Michael. ‘Sacks had six and we only know what happened to five of them.’

‘Perhaps Thorpe had three, not two,’ said Harling, patting his greased hair with both hands.

‘I do not believe so,’ said Michael. ‘Or I imagine he would have used the last one on the Countess, instead of resorting to the unknown qualities of Grene’s medicine. I think we have yet to discover the fate of the sixth bottle.’

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