Authors: Michael Jecks
‘It went to court! You had to pay pleaders!’
Jaket licked his dry lips and tried to wear a smile. ‘The money the lawyer charged cannot be laid at Humphrey’s door. I knew how much they could cost before I started the case.’
‘And he won the matter, keeping the forge on your land.’
Jaket shrugged. ‘It happens.’
Sir Gilbert pressed him. ‘Weren’t you angry? Didn’t you complain about the noise?’
‘I don’t deny that. Almost everyone in the alley complained about it. They shook the foundations of all our places, those hammers, and the smoke! You should have seen this alley on a windless day. Smoke and fumes all over. You couldn’t hardly breathe!’
‘Sir Gilbert, may I ask a question?’ Baldwin enquired.
He was rewarded with an expression of annoyance, but then the knight gave him a dismissive wave of the hand, as if Sir Gilbert was indulging him. ‘Please do, Sir Baldwin,’ he said.
‘Thank you. Jaket, do you have a pig?’
‘Yes. It’s in the orchard.’
‘Did Humphrey keep a pig?’
‘No, he didn’t have space for one.’
‘And yet his forge has sheltered one. Whose would that have been?’
‘Ham’s. His hog went wandering a couple of days ago and Humphrey managed to catch it.’
‘Ham? Is this true?’ Baldwin asked.
‘Um. Yes.’ Ham had his fingers intertwined, and he twisted them as he tried to meet Baldwin’s eye.
‘Did he demand the trotters?’
Ham suddenly flinched as though someone had struck him. ‘It wasn’t fair! The pig is all we have left! Since I lost my work, I’ve had nothing, but what I could afford, I’ve shoved into the pig to fatten him, so that come winter there’d be enough for us to eat, and then Humphrey, God rot his balls, comes and tells me he’s taken my hog and stuck it in his forge, and unless I agree to have it killed and give him the trotters, he’ll keep it. I couldn’t let him do that.’
‘So instead you went to him, stabbed him, and rescued your hog,’ Sir Gilbert said scathingly. ‘How much fairer and more just.’
‘No, I didn’t! I went to his house to try to argue with him as darkness was falling, but the door was locked and he wouldn’t answer it, no matter how hard I banged on it. And then I heard my pig in the forge, and I thought, well, if he’s not there, I could at least get my pig back. But I didn’t even have to break down the door because it was open already. I fetched my pig and took him home.’
‘You expect us to believe this?’ Sir Gilbert demanded. ‘Pathetic! It’s the most unbelievable tale I have heard in many years!’
‘I swear it’s true, Sir.’
‘You had the motive and you had the means,’ Sir Gilbert said gleefully, pointing at Ham’s belt. ‘Your knife!’
Ham reluctantly pulled it from its sheath and passed it to him, and Baldwin studied it. ‘No blood,’ he said, and held it up for all to see. ‘And the blade is a good nine inches long.’
‘So?’ Sir Gilbert asked.
‘So it was not used to kill Humphrey. There is one additional point about the deadly stab wound,’ Baldwin continued, walking to the corpse and pointing. ‘About it there is a ring-like bruise. I think it means the killer stabbed with main force, driving the blade in sharply as far as he could. The hilt struck Humphrey’s flesh, and marked it in this manner.’
‘And what does that tell us?’ Sir Gilbert asked suavely.
‘That the handle struck him, which means that a long blade like this would probably have gone right through him,’ Baldwin explained.
‘It might not,’ Sir Gilbert said. ‘It could have struck his shoulder bone and thus not penetrated his back.’
‘If that were the case, the hilt would not have struck his chest,’ Baldwin pointed out. ‘No, Humphrey was killed with a shorter blade.’
‘Who has a shorter blade?’
‘Sir Gilbert, you have a shorter blade, do you not?’ Baldwin said mildly, pointing to the knife on his belt.
Sir Gilbert was suddenly very still. ‘You accuse me?’
‘I do not accuse any man,’ Baldwin said pointedly. ‘I only wish to get to the truth. I would like to call another witness. Do you object?’
‘I …’ Sir Gilbert was white-faced with rage, but seeing the interested attention of the whole jury, and the reed poised over the paper in the clerk’s hand, he swallowed his ire with difficulty. ‘Call whomever you wish,’ he rasped finally.
‘Let us hear your servant,’ Baldwin continued, and when the man had been brought in, Baldwin made him stand before the jury, his back to his master.
‘I want to ask you about last night,’ he said.
‘Were you with your master?’
‘Well, all afternoon, sir.’
‘So you were with him here, when he came to see Humphrey?’
‘I was holding his horse for him at the entrance to the alley.’
‘I see. When your master appeared, how was he?’
‘He was angry, sir.’
‘Because the armour was no good?’
‘Not only that …’
The servant tried to turn to look at his master, but Baldwin brought his hand down heavily on his shoulder. ‘
‘Because he’d made an offer for the man’s woman, so Humphrey grew wrathful with my master.’
Baldwin looked at Sir Gilbert. He appeared almost to have fallen asleep. ‘Your master offered Humphrey money for his woman?’
‘Yes, but Humphrey said he wouldn’t accept all the gold in the Pope’s palace at Avignon for her.’
‘Did your master have blood on his tunic?’
‘He was wearing his scarlet tunic, Sir Baldwin.’
‘The perfect clothing for murder,’ Baldwin observed.
‘I killed no one,’ Sir Gilbert snapped.
‘Then who killed Humphrey?’ Baldwin said.
‘The girl said that the candles were out. I left before the full dark. If I’d been there, she would have seen me,’ Sir Gilbert protested.
‘Did Ham collect his pig after Humphrey’s death? The house was locked,’ Baldwin mused. ‘Was it full dark, then, Ham?’
‘No, it was as the light was fading. It was dull, but not dark yet.’
Baldwin glanced up at the west-facing window, puzzled. ‘How long was your master gone?’
Sir Gilbert’s man considered. ‘Not long. I could hear them. Then Sir Gilbert came hurrying. He jumped on his horse and spurred away, and I had to hurry to mount my pony and ride off to catch up. As I left Crediton, all I could see was the fading sun catching his harness in the distance.’
‘So it was not full dark even then?’ Baldwin said.
Baldwin faced Sir Gilbert. ‘And you had not paid this armourer, you told me?’
‘I refused to pay him until my helm was ready. Would you have done?’
Baldwin ignored his question, instead turning to face the four suspects again. ‘This murder was committed by someone who was well known by Humphrey. That was how the killer got so close to him.’
‘A thief might have waylaid him,’ Sir Gilbert said.
‘Behind what would the thief have lain hidden? Humphrey was killed in the open, there, in the middle of his floor. No, he was with someone he knew. He didn’t expect to be murdered. He thought he was safe.’
Baldwin stood still, contemplatively staring up at the window.
‘The trouble is, so many of his neighbours disliked him. But they could have killed him at any time. They had no reason to kill him last night. Only one person could have wished to kill him last night, and only one could have got close enough.’
‘Do you accuse me?’ Sir Gilbert said, his voice low and dangerous.
‘Sir Gilbert, please calm yourself. I know you are only recently dubbed knight, but it is not chivalrous to lose your temper,’ Sir Baldwin said, and as Sir Gilbert swelled as though about to explode, he continued, ‘No, it was the Coroner’s argument with the armourer which points us to the murderer. The Coroner wanted to offer money for the woman he had seen going to warm Humphrey’s bed, and that enraged Humphrey.’
‘He didn’t attack me, if that’s what you’re leading up to,’ Sir Gilbert snapped.
‘No. He went inside and spoke to his whore, an attractive young woman for whom he felt a very strong affection. Him, a man whose wife had died some while before, a lonely man living almost in a barn. Look at this place, you can see, you can
his desperate loneliness! What could be more natural than that he should want a woman to share this with him? And what could be more natural than that he should want the woman who so regularly comforted him to share his life?’
‘I couldn’t do that, sir,’ Edith said modestly. ‘I am already married.’
‘We all know of women who can and do leave their husbands,’ Baldwin said gently, ‘and a man in love may even think of disposing of a rival. Did he suggest that to you?’
‘Me, sir? Why should he do that, sir?’
‘Because he loved you, Edith. And he probably thought that you loved him too, which was why he didn’t think you would mind when he told you he could not pay you.’
‘Of course he could pay me,’ she said, but her face had paled.
‘No. He had nothing in his purse. There was plate in his chest, which a robber would have taken, but he had no money. Perhaps he was relying upon Sir Gilbert’s cash to pay you.’
‘No! I couldn’t have hurt him!’
‘You say it was dark, but all the others were here at dusk. Ham was here after the murder, if your story is true and you locked the door before going. Before that, Jaket saw Sir Gilbert here. Sir Gilbert left without entering the hall. But you were here.’
‘He threatened me, sir, what could I do?’ she said, throwing caution to the winds and falling to her knees at his feet. ‘He wanted me to leave Adam and live with him, wanted me without paying. I couldn’t do that! I was bound to Adam by my vows. I had to draw my knife in defence!’
‘He thought you loved him. He thought you would willingly agree to sleep with him for free. And you stabbed him to death.’
‘He was killed because I didn’t pay for my armour?’ Sir Gilbert said, shocked.
‘Edith needed the cash. He made his use of her, but then failed to reimburse her. In a rage, she lashed out with her little dagger.’
Sir Gilbert glanced at her belt and saw her delicate knife. ‘Which is too short to penetrate both sides of his body.’
‘But long enough to puncture his heart,’ Baldwin agreed.
Sir Gilbert motioned to the clerk at his side. ‘Record that the woman Edith has confessed her guilt.’
Edith stood up and allowed herself to be gripped by Tanner. Baldwin took her dagger and studied it. ‘Blood,’ he said, tossing it to Sir Gilbert.
‘I do not understand how you decided that it was her and not one of the other people,’ Sir Gilbert said, pouring wine.
Having completed the public aspects of the inquiry, now the two sat at the table once more, having supervised the removal of the body, while the clerk took an inventory of the dead man’s belongings.
‘It did not make sense to me,’ Baldwin explained. ‘Why should any of his neighbours suddenly decide to kill him? Surely there must be a striking event which gave someone cause to murder him yesterday?’
‘I thought of that, but Humphrey had taken his pig. You can be assured that Humphrey would not have let Ham get too close to him. If Ham had been there, Humphrey would have had defensive wounds on his hands and arms, as he would if it was Jaket or Adam. He would be on his guard with any of them. As he would have been with you. Especially since you had refused to pay him. No, that did not seem credible. But the thought led me to think that of all people, a man is at his most defenceless with women. The argument with you about his woman left him furious, and perhaps he was more determined than ever to rescue her from the degrading life of a whore.’
‘And she turned upon him.’
‘How else would a whore respond? He had tried to persuade her of his love as soon as you left – when Ham came, it was still dusk, and Humphrey was already dead, so he had had no time to bed her. But she assumed he was trying to avoid paying her. In a rage, she stabbed. Maybe she only meant to hurt him, to show that she was not so foolish as to be taken in.’
‘Why did she leave her kerchief behind?’
‘Now you test me,’ Baldwin said. ‘It was beside the bed, so I think she agreed to let him keep it as a memento some time ago. Perhaps she thought it would be a good way to keep her client bound to her. He would have something to remember her by, even when she was not with him.’
‘Why did she lock the door and go through that charade of leaving the forge open?’
‘Panic. Her first instinct was to bolt, but then she thought that anyone could walk in, and too many knew she had been there. Better if she leave the body hidden for a while.’
‘But left the key in the forge where anyone could get it.’
‘That was clever. If anyone could get it, anyone could have killed him.’
‘She is plainly a dangerous woman.’
‘Yes,’ Baldwin said, his gaze travelling about the room once more. His voice fell, and he spoke as if to himself. ‘But only to sad, lonely men who thought her body could be taken as a gift, when it was merely a commodity she traded for money. That is the sadness. That Humphrey truly loved her. Did you see how similar her knife was to yours?’
‘They could have been twins.’
‘Yes. She told me that he gave it to her. It was a gift.’
He glanced at the window once more, and shivered.
‘Can you imagine how he felt? A lonely man, missing his first wife, who at last declared his love for another woman, only to be stabbed with the very token of love he had given her. It’s no wonder he didn’t protect himself. He probably did not want to.’
A CLERICAL ERROR
He had broken the law, and right this minute, that was all John Mattheu, novice at the Abbey of Tavistock in Devonshire, in the year of Grace thirteen hundred and twenty two, could think of. It saved him from considering the body in the stream before him.
Why had he come here? Every day he exercised the Abbot’s horses, but rarely this way. He could only assume an evil spirit had guided him. If only someone else had found him. Anyone else.
It was the dogs that brought him to his senses again. They were all over the place, panting in the unusually warm weather. Brother Peter the almoner had told him with a dry chuckle only yesterday that any weather other than rain was unseasonal on Dartmoor, and John had to agree. Since he had arrived at Tavistock two years ago, he had endured more dampness than he would have thought possible.