Authors: Michael Jecks
‘Of course it didn’t!’ Reeve Miria said scornfully. ‘Since when did a moorstone block that size move.’
‘You haven’t told us what you want us here for,’ Ivo said shrewdly. ‘If you wanted only those who were nearest to the body, you’d not have called me up here, you’d just demand Eustace and some of the other locals. The Coroner’s rules demand that the people who are nearest and those who’re within the parish should be called to view the body. Yet I am a member of Tavistock’s parish, while Eustace is a moorman and comes from Lydford parish. Why?’
He was demanding an answer from the Reeve, but the Reeve himself did not answer. Instead he looked over to Peter, who was now kneeling at the side of the stream, between the corpse and the waters. Hearing the question, he looked up. ‘You ask why?’ he enquired. There was a faint tone of surprise in his voice. ‘I should have thought that was obvious, my friend. Because here among us is the killer. All of you had a desire to kill Ralph.’
There was a grim silence in answer to his words. John felt anxious, aware that his stomach suddenly felt empty. Peter was staring up at the horizon again, seemingly unaware of the upset and annoyance he had caused.
It was curious that nobody questioned his statement. There was a strange stillness, as though all the people there were holding their breath and waiting for him to make another comment, and John wondered for a moment whether Peter was half expecting an outburst, something that might make the murderer declaim his innocence before all. Eventually, Peter dropped his head and turned to face them.
‘Ralph died, I think, either from the blow to his head, or from drowning because he had been stunned and could not lift his mouth and nose above the waters. I can’t say that I am expert enough to interpret the signs, but I can be sure that he died some hours ago. He is quite chill, isn’t he?’
Ivo Colbrok gave a great ‘Hah!’ and smiled triumphantly. ‘Well that means I could have had nothing to do with his death: I was in the Plymouth Inn last night, and stayed there until this morning, when I went home.’
Peter gave him a shocked look. ‘I trust you didn’t think I meant you’d killed him, Ivo? The only argument you had with Ralph was about the rabbits.’
‘Yes . . . Well . . . He would complain about them every few days. Insisted that my rabbits chewed into his crops last year. Absolute crap, of course. I look after my rabbits, I do. There’s no need for them to wander, and why he should think that they’d eat his manky peas and beans, I don’t know. Anyway, there was nothing the bastard could do about it,’ he added smugly, ‘since your Abbot is the owner of the warrens. I pay him rent each year to farm his rabbits, but they are still his own and, as I told Ralph, if he had a problem with them, he should go to the Abbot.’
‘Yes,’ Peter said ruminatively. His chin was cushioned in his hand again. It was a familiar posture, and John had often wondered whether it was an affectation which he used to conceal his scar. ‘The Abbot told me of that. In fact before I came up here today, the Abbot told me to ask you about the argument you had with Ralph last midday.’
Ivo paled and his voice grew quieter. ‘I hadn’t realised the good Abbot had heard.’
‘Oh, the Abbot has good hearing regarding matters which may need to be decided before his court,’ Peter said cheerily. ‘I understand that it was some other problem?’
‘He accused me of trying to poison his dog,’ Ivo snarled. ‘That monster there! Rumon, he called it, after the saint, which is blasphemy in any man’s language.’
Peter smiled at the mastiff, who chose this moment to scratch laboriously at his pendulous jowls, flicking a thick gobbet of saliva some yards, narrowly missing John. ‘St Rumon may be the saint most honoured in our church, but Ralph always said that it was only fair that the fellow should be given the saint’s name, since he was born on the saint’s day.’
‘I didn’t try to poison the tawny brute, anyway. That was a lie put about by Ralph to justify trying to thump me.’
‘I wasn’t aware that Ralph required provocation to hit people,’ Peter said mildly.
John had noticed before that the almoner tended to avoid a man’s eyes when he was questioning them. It was a trait which he had exhibited on occasions with the novices, when he suspected that one was guilty of a misdemeanour, as though by looking away he could hear the truth more distinctly. Only when he was certain of his judgement did he look up and meet his victim’s gaze with a firm and determined scowl.
He looked up now, and fixed his stern features on Ivo with the result that Ivo flushed and looked away as though ashamed.
‘Did you try to poison his dog?’
Ivo threw his hands out in a gesture of appeal. ‘What would you do? The brute got in among my warren. He loved chasing the rabbits, and it was doing none of them any good.’
‘So you did?’ Peter said sadly, ruffling the dog’s ear.
‘I would have been justified if I had,’ Ivo said evasively.
‘You say that you have witnesses last night who can confirm you were at the inn?’
‘What of when they were asleep?’
‘The door was bolted.’
‘So that it could have been opened from somebody inside?’
‘Are you saying I killed him?’
‘It’s possible. I know you and he had regular arguments.’
‘Perhaps. But, you see, this man’s body is very cold. What if he died, let us suppose, early yesterday afternoon?’
‘I was at the market.’
‘Ah, that’s good!’ Peter said with simulated relief. ‘So you can provide witnesses who saw you at every moment of the afternoon?’
‘Well, I don’t know about . . . ‘
’Because otherwise one could wonder whether you and Ralph argued, and then you followed him here and viciously struck him down, leaving him here to die.’
Ivo blinked, and although his mouth worked, no sound issued.
Reeve Miria sucked at his teeth. ‘I find this very interesting. I think I should come with you and speak to the market people. If no one can confirm your story, Ivo, I think you could be in a difficult position.’
Ivo glanced at him sideways, when Peter was looking away, and John saw him make a gesture towards his purse. Reeve Miria’s expression didn’t alter, but John was sure that he moved his head just a fraction, scarcely enough for anyone to have noticed, but John was half expecting it; there were so many stories about the Reeve’s corruption flying about the town. He reflected that he should warn Peter about the Reeve, but then he almost smiled at such a fatuous thought: Peter would already have heard of it.
The Reeve cleared his throat. ‘We should get back to town, then. Try to check this man’s story.’
‘For my part, I am glad that the matter is resolved so quickly,’ said Eustace Joce. He snorted and yawned. ‘I for one have work to be getting on with. I have some sheep with something that looks nasty. I only hope to Christ Jesus that it’s not another murrain.’
John shivered at the mere word. In 1315 and 1316, there had been a terrible famine which had affected all, the highest and the lowest in the land, and at the same time there had been a disease among first the sheep, then the cattle all over the country. It lasted years, and all farmers were petrified at the thought that it might recur. Even the abbey’s flocks had been decimated.
‘I hope your animals are safe,’ Peter said earnestly. ‘It would be awful to have another instance of disease amongst the animals. I shall suggest a prayer to the Abbot.’
‘That is good of you, brother,’ Eustace said, and cast a smug look at Ivo. ‘Come, Anastasia. We should return.’
‘Hmm?’ Peter looked up as though surprised. ‘I should be most grateful if you could remain a little longer, friend. Or I should say, “friends”. There is much to be considered. For example, I noticed how sad you were, maid, on hearing that this man was dead.’
‘I do not like to think of a man dying,’ Anastasia said with gentle compassion and a quick look at the corpse.
She was a most attractive woman to John’s eyes. Her features were pleasingly regular like the Madonna’s, her complexion sweetly pale and set off by a clean white wimple which decorously concealed her hair. Only a few strands of a magnificent chestnut hue escaped, gleaming auburn in the sun. She looked delicate, with a broad forehead and eyebrows which arched in crescents over large green eyes. Her mouth was well-shaped, if John was any judge, with full and soft-looking lips. As for the rest of her body, he preferred not to permit his eyes to commit the sins of lust or covetousness, but it was impossible not to notice the firm, rounded swelling under her bodice or the swaying of her hips. She was indeed beautiful, and when she turned her eyes upon Peter, he studied her with a smile, as though considering her for the first time.
‘The world would be a better place if there was a little more Christian sympathy,’ her husband said shortly.
He was a good looking man, John thought. Powerful and well-proportioned, he was a contrast to Peter, with his appalling wound. Apparently Peter thought the same, for he looked away as though ashamed.
‘Tell me, maid: did you know this Ralph well?’
‘Not particularly, brother.’
‘No? Your accent shows you come from this town, though. Were you born here?’
‘Yes. But what of it?’
‘Surely Ralph lived here all his life as well. And you and he were of an age, weren’t you?’
She threw her husband a faintly perplexed smile, as though wondering where this interrogation was leading.
‘What are you talking about, brother?’ Eustace grated. ‘My wife is here because you asked her here, not for any other reason.’
John privately wondered as much. Anastasia was so pretty a thing, it was impossible to consider that she could have wielded a stone heavy enough to smash Ralph’s head. Compared to her mild mannered responses, Peter’s questioning sounded harsh and almost cruel.
Peter sighed. ‘I was only wondering whether your wife could have known Ralph. She was surely not acquainted with him for the first time today. Even if one sees a dead body by the side of the road, it would not normally lead to tears, would it? Not unless the dead man was personally known to us. That is why I wished to verify that your wife actually knew him.’
Having stated his piece, he looked away again, but this time John could see that his eyes were not unfocussed, gazing into nothingness, but were concentrating with an almost furious anger on Ralph’s head. He was a man possessed by an idea, John thought, and such a pure, perfect idea that it would not admit of any other to enter his head.
‘If you demand to know, then yes, I knew him,’ Anastasia said, with a smile that captivated John. ‘We grew up together.’
‘What has this to do with the man’s murder?’ Eustace demanded. His face was red now, as though he was feeling the barb of an insult.
Peter looked to him. ‘Why should you feel that it has anything to do with Ralph’s death? I have not said that any of my questions are related to Ralph, and yet you seem to feel threatened. Why should that be?’
‘I? Threatened? Ballocks to you, my fine brother! I know your sort. You are only a feeble charity-giver, aren’t you? Well in my experience, the charity-giver is often the receiver of charity himself! If you didn’t have that wound, you wouldn’t be here, would you?’
Peter gazed at him directly then, and a blaze of rage, so pure and unfettered that John thought it could have melted lead, leapt from his eyes. Eustace recoiled, a hand rising as though to protect himself, but then, as soon as it flared, Peter’s anger dissipated. ‘You think I am a weakling, generously protected by the Abbot against the cruelty of the world, Master Joce? Perhaps you are right. I am a sad old man, when all is said and done.’
‘My apologies, brother. I didn’t think what I was saying,’ Eustace Joce said.
John thought to himself.
You said what you thought you needed to distract Peter from your wife, didn’t you?
‘That’s perfectly all right, Master Joce,’ Peter said with a sigh. And then he turned back to Anastasia. ‘Since you knew him so well, maid, when did you last meet him?’
‘Brother, I will not have you interrogating my wife like this!’ Eustace exploded immediately. ‘This is ridiculous! A man is found up here, dead, and you leap to conclusions, demanding to conduct your own inquest — well, I won’t be a part of it, that’s all I can say!’
He span on his heel and called to his wife. Anastasia threw him a look of . . . what: gratitude? John wondered . . . and was about to follow him, when Peter called to them.
‘Master Joce, please do not go now. There are other matters I would discuss with you.’
‘I don’t have time for all this.’
‘Master, please,’ Peter sighed. ‘Speedier to answer questions now than to wait and explain in court.’
‘What does that mean?’ Eustace demanded angrily, spinning to face the old monk.
‘The good Abbot has asked me to report to him, and I have a duty to weigh all the facts. If someone refuses to answer my questions, I would have to recommend that the Abbot had him arrested on suspicion at least until the Coroner arrives.’
‘You . . . ‘
’My friend, I have no choice. You must see that,’ Peter said placatingly. ‘I am a servant to my Lord Abbot.’
Eustace’s mouth snapped shut and he took a deep breath. ‘You already have your man. Ivo had a dispute with him: surely he was the murderer.’
‘I never did a thing to him!’ Ivo declared angrily.
‘Enough!’ the Reeve said, stepping between the two as they squared up to each other. ‘Calm down and listen to the monk.’
‘Although one man might appear to have a motive, so may another, do you not think?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re getting at,’ Eustace said. ‘And I don’t see why I should waste time listening to this rubbish.’
For the first time Peter’s voice hardened. ‘Then stop behaving like a cretin, and listen! You may learn something! Now, maid, did . . .’