Authors: Michael Jecks
‘In that house,’ he pointed. ‘My family has a room at the back.’
It was two doors along the alley from the armourer’s place. ‘How well did you know Humphrey?’
‘Hardly at all. He was a cocky bastard, making his bloody metal all day. You could hear the din ten miles off, I reckon.’
This was declared in a wheedling tone, like a beggar whining for alms. Baldwin raised his voice. ‘Who else disliked him?’ There was no answer and he spoke coldly to Ham. ‘Perhaps the dead man was not so troubling to others, eh?’
‘They thought the same,’ Ham said sulkily. ‘Jaket? You had enough trouble with him.’
Baldwin beckoned the man. ‘Jaket, what can you tell me about Humphrey’s death?’
‘Sir Baldwin, I know nothing about his death,’ Jaket said. He was a large, pudding-faced man with sparse hair and a large gut. Baldwin recalled seeing him often enough in taverns and inns, always with genially beaming features. Jaket was the first to lead singing or to call for fresh ales, a good companion for an alehouse.
‘Did either of you see Humphrey yesterday?’ Baldwin asked.
Ham shook his head. ‘I was working all day, logging in the Dean’s garden.’
Baldwin nodded. He could check with the Dean of Crediton’s Collegiate Church later. ‘What of you, Jaket?’
‘I think I did see him, yes.’
‘In the alley, near his door. He was with a tall, foppish young fellow, fair-haired, wearing a rich scarlet tunic. He must have been a knight, from his belt and spurs.’
Baldwin was struck by the similarity between this description and Sir Gilbert. ‘Did you hear them talking?’
‘I didn’t go close to them.’
Ham spoke up. ‘He never got on with the armourer. They’ve been fighting in the courts for ages, ever since Humphrey first came here.’
Baldwin vaguely remembered hearing of their battles in court. ‘What was the dispute?’
Jaket had reddened. ‘It was nothing much. He built his forge on my land, but when I told him he refused to stop building, said he had bought the land fairly and it was nothing to do with me. I couldn’t fight with him, so I paid a lawyer to argue my case in the Church court. Dean Clifford chose to find in favour of Humphrey.’
‘And that rankled,’ Baldwin observed.
‘No. Not much,’ Jaket protested.
Baldwin did not believe him. Jaket had realised that admitting to an unneighbourly dispute could make him the most obvious suspect. ‘ “Not much”? Does that mean that you were happy to lose your land? How much did he take?’
‘Half the forge is on my land,’ Jaket said, throwing a fierce glare at Ham. ‘And he never even offered to buy it. How would you feel? Anyway, I didn’t talk to them because they were arguing. Something about money.’
‘Who else could wish to harm Humphrey?’ Baldwin asked.
It was Jaket’s turn to implicate someone to deflect attention from himself, and he jerked his chin at Edith Weaver. ‘Ask her.’
‘Edith?’ Baldwin asked with surprise. ‘What have you to say for yourself?’
‘Nothing, Sir Baldwin,’ she said, casting a cold glance at the watchman, who had prodded her forward with the butt of his staff.
She was a comely woman, a brunette of maybe twenty years, of middle height, with an oval face that, although it was not beautiful, had the attractions of youth and energy. Slanting eyes met Baldwin’s with resolution, but also a slight anxiety. However Baldwin would not convict anyone for appearing nervous before a King’s official.
By comparison, her husband was a pop-eyed fool of some thirty years, with the flabby flesh of the heavy drinker who scarcely bothers with solid food. He had the small eyes of a rat, but set in a pale, round face. Baldwin had never liked him, and liked him even less when he thought of Edith.
‘Ask anyone here,’ Jaket said. ‘She’s got a common fame for whoring. She’s notorious!’
‘Edith?’ Baldwin said. ‘Have you anything to say?’ He could smell lavender again, he thought. It was on the woman. A cheap perfume.
‘What can a wife do, when her husband has no work and spends his days in the tavern?’
‘Shut up, you stupid bitch!’ Adam snarled.
‘When did you last bring money for me and our children?’
‘I’m going to get work soon.’
‘Oh, yes? For six months you’ve given me nothing for food or drink, but have taken everything you could to fill your guts with ale, you drunken sot! What did you expect me to do? Watch my children starve?’ she sneered.
Baldwin stared at him coldly. ‘Adam, I shall question you in a moment. For now, be silent!’ He faced Edith. ‘So, you do not deny your trade?’
‘Why should I? Don’t most wives have to turn to selling their bodies at one time or another?’
Baldwin reflected that his own wife was born to a more fortunate environment. ‘Did you see Humphrey yesterday?’
She was quiet for a moment, as if choosing whether to lie, and Baldwin snapped his fingers to Tanner. The Constable pulled the kerchief from his belt and passed it to him.
Adam cried out, ‘Edith, your kerchief!’
Baldwin said, ‘This was beside his bed. It is yours?’
‘Yes, it’s mine,’ she agreed.
‘Where were you last night? Were you there?’
She paused again, but this time Baldwin had noticed something else. ‘What is that?’ he asked, pointing at her foot.
On one sole of her thin sandals he had seen a mark, and there was a corresponding smudge on the inner side of her foot below her ankle. Edith gazed down at it with a kind of weary resignation.
‘It is blood, is it not?’ Baldwin said sternly.
She sighed and nodded. ‘Yes. I had to flee after I saw him die. Humphrey was here in the yard yesterday morning, and he asked me to visit him last night. I knew Adam would be in the tavern till late, so he wouldn’t care, and Humphrey always paid me well, so I agreed.’
‘When were you to go to him?’
‘At dusk. But when I arrived, he was in the forge talking to the man Jaket described. I walked into the hall and drank some of his wine. When I heard him leaving the forge and talking outside, I went up the ladder to his chamber and began to doff my clothes. He was talking angrily, I thought. I wasn’t sure if he would still want me, but I was desperate for the money, so I prepared. My kerchief and skirts were already off when I heard him come in, and a gust blew out the candles. I could see nothing in the dark. I took off my other garments, thinking he would soon join me, and then … I heard it.’
She lifted her eyes to meet Baldwin’s serious gaze. ‘It was like the thud of a clod of soil thrown at a man’s back. I heard Humphrey curse, then cough, and I heard him say, “You have killed me!” and there was a tumbling noise, then a rough, rattling sound, as of a man with too much phlegm in his throat. I remained silent up in the chamber, not daring to move, until I heard the door slam. Then I donned my clothing as speedily as I might, and rushed down the ladder to him, but I was too late.’
‘He was dead?’
‘Yes. There was nothing I could do. And I feared that if I called the Constable, I would be suspected. What else could I do? I ran.’
‘The door was locked,’ Baldwin said.
‘I locked it.’
‘Where did you get the key?’
‘He always kept a spare in the forge, hanging with his tools. Everyone knew about it. I went there to fetch it, locked the house, and returned the key to the forge. I was scared – but I am no murderer.’
Which explained why the hall was locked but the forge open, Baldwin thought. ‘Did you see whom it was that entered the hall with Humphrey and stabbed him?’
‘No. I swear it.’
Jaket interrupted eagerly. ‘Surely it was the tall knight I saw with Humphrey earlier.’ And then his eyes widened with horror.
‘Perhaps,’ Baldwin said. ‘But there is no proof of that.’
‘Proof of what, Sir Baldwin? My Heavens, have you decided to hold the inquest without me? Eh? Won’t do, Sir Baldwin. No, it won’t!’
Sir Gilbert, Sir Baldwin sourly told himself, could scarcely have picked a better time to have arrived.
Baldwin sent Tanner to fetch bread, wine and some roasted meats, then joined Sir Gilbert in the hall. They sat at Humphrey’s table, and while they waited for their meal to arrive, Baldwin summarised the evidence he had heard so far.
Sir Gilbert appeared unconcerned by Humphrey’s death. ‘He wasn’t a terribly good metalsmith.’
‘But you chose to buy from him.’
‘I didn’t know how poor his work was. Not that it matters. I have an almost complete suit of armour and have paid nothing.’
‘How so?’ Baldwin asked in surprise.
‘I was here to collect it yesterday, but the helm didn’t fit snugly. It was shoddy, quite shoddy, so I told him to fix it before I would pay him anything. He wasn’t happy, of course, but then, who ever is? Serfs nowadays are so surly. They hardly even show the manners they were born with.’ He yawned, adding petulantly, ‘Where’s that damned fool with the food?’
‘He will not be long,’ Baldwin said. ‘What time did you leave Humphrey yesterday?’
Sir Gilbert had curious eyes that remained half-lidded, as though he was in a perpetual state of confused lethargy. It was one of the reasons why Sir Baldwin disliked him, but now he also found himself distrusting the knight as well.
‘Are you suggesting that I could have had any part in his death, Sir Baldwin?’
‘I said no such thing. I merely inquired when you left Crediton yesterday.’
‘I should take it very ill, should you accuse me of murder, Sir Baldwin.’
Baldwin leaned back and stared unblinkingly at Sir Gilbert, his left hand on the table top, his right near his belt where he could reach his small riding sword. ‘If I were to accuse, I would be happy to allow you trial by combat, Sir Gilbert.’
Sir Gilbert chuckled. ‘I think you would find the combat rather short, and I would find it not to my liking,’ he said frankly.
Tanner entered with a pair of cooks, and soon Baldwin and Sir Gilbert were tucking into their food. As they ate, Baldwin admired the small dagger which Sir Gilbert used to cut his food.
‘This knife? I bought it from the armourer,’ Sir Gilbert said when asked.
When they were finished, Baldwin asked, ‘What time did you leave? After all, your servants can confirm when you did go.’
That was no threat. Any knight could guarantee his own servants would perjure themselves to support their master.
Sir Gilbert sipped wine from his mazer and then steepled his fingers under his nose. ‘I see no reason not to answer you. I left almost immediately after seeing my armour. It was quite late.’
‘You had angry words with him outside the forge?’
Sir Gilbert’s eyes widened marginally. ‘Who told you of that?’
‘Let us say, he was not happy that he would have to wait for payment.’
‘Not happy enough to come to blows?’
‘You overstep your mark, Sir Baldwin,’ Sir Gilbert grated.
‘And I would hear your answer.’
‘However I would not answer impertinence,’ he snapped. ‘Now, if you have no objection, Sir Baldwin, I wish to conduct my official enquiry.’
Baldwin stood behind the Coroner as the town’s jury shuffled in. Every man from the age of twelve was brought inside and stood nervously at the wall, their eyes reflecting their consciousness of the seriousness of the matter. A cleric from the Church had already taken up his post at Sir Gilbert’s side, reed in hand, to record the inquest. That was the Coroner’s first duty, after all, to record all the facts about a murder so that the justices could try the murderer later.
Adam, Ham and Jaket were led in, Edith at their rear. The four were taken to a point between the jury and Sir Gilbert, who sat on a low seat and studied them.
‘Sir Baldwin de Furnshill has informed me of your evidence,’ he began. ‘First, Jury, you must agree how this man died.’
He walked to the body and stripped it naked, with Tanner’s help. ‘See? One stab in the chest, by a blade probably an inch broad at the hilt. It reaches in,’ he added, shoving his forefinger into the hole, ‘Not more than about four inches. I think it’s fair to say that he died almost instantly: it went straight to his heart.’
Rolling the body over and over, he showed that the corpse had no other wounds.
Tanner glanced at Baldwin. ‘Sir, there are no cuts on his hands.’
‘No,’ Sir Gilbert said sharply, drawing Tanner’s attention back to him. ‘So we can assume that this murderous attack happened swiftly, before he could think of protecting himself. He didn’t have time to grab the blade and push it away.’
He turned from the body and returned to his seat. ‘The question is, who amongst you could have so hated this man that you killed him? My first thought is you, Adam.’
‘Me?’ The squeal was like that of a pig, Baldwin thought, and with that thought, he wondered again about the excrement in the forge.
! You knew that your wife was whoring about the place, didn’t you? You knew that Humphrey was enjoying her, didn’t you?’
‘No, no, I didn’t!’
‘You didn’t know your wife was selling her body?’
‘Well … I knew that, yes.’
‘So you took your revenge on him.’
Adam shivered slightly. ‘I’d have beaten
if I’d guessed she was lying with a neighbour, yes, but not him.’
‘You expect me to believe that?’
‘We needed the money,’ Adam said simply.
‘You mean,’ Sir Gilbert’s voice reflected his disbelief, ‘you mean you’d happily allow her to whore her way around the town so long as she didn’t sleep with a near neighbour?’
‘It’d be hard to look a neighbour in the face if she had,’ Adam said apologetically. ‘I’ll thrash her for that later.’
Baldwin had to control a chuckle. Sir Gilbert was being confronted with a different set of rules and principles of honour. To have one’s wife lie with other men was all right, but not if her clients were close neighbours! But then the thought of the pig returned to him, and he watched the men with interest.
‘Jaket, you must have detested this man because of your litigation against him.’
‘Oh, you expect that kind of problem,’ Jaket said off-handedly. ‘It’s not as if it was a huge dispute.’