‘I shall leave you here,’ Cuthbert murmured and walked away.
The shutters on the widow swung back, and Corbett approached.The ivory-skinned face staring back at him was smooth, narrow-featured, framed by a creamy wimple beneath the dark blue capuchin of a Benedictine nun. The eyes, however, redeemed the harshness of the woman’s face; large and clear, they stared direct and frank with a hint of amusement.
‘You are, sir?’
Corbett introduced himself. ‘You won’t come out?’ he added.
‘No, clerk, I feel safe here. I can and do leave, but not now. I’ll listen to your questions. I know that Evesham has, thank God, gone to a higher court to answer for his sins.’
‘Which are?’ Corbett drew closer, and caught the sweetness of herbs and soap.
‘Arrogance, cruelty, greed.’
‘You know nothing of his death?’
‘Of course not.’
‘But you are pleased?’
‘No, I am satisfied.’
‘Did he ever visit you?’
‘No, I wanted nothing to do with him.’
‘Yet he came to this place, where you and Cuthbert Tunstall shelter?’
‘Yes, clerk, sheltering from the violent tempest he caused in all our lives.’
‘Yet he came to make atonement. Did he ever ask to see you?’
‘Once. I refused.’
‘Too little, too late?’ Corbett asked.
‘No, no.’ Adelicia’s voice turned soft. ‘God save me, I’ll be truthful. Brother Cuthbert and I did not believe Evesham’s protestations. ’
‘As the root, so the flower, clerk. Can a man like Evesham change so swiftly, so dramatically? I don’t think you believe that either.’
‘He apparently did. He came here perhaps to atone in full view of yourself and Brother Cuthbert.’
‘Or to shelter,’ she retorted. ‘Like a ship takes refuge from a storm or a wounded wolf slinks off to some cave to lick its sores and wait for a more opportune time to return to the hunt.’
‘What do you mean? What evidence do you have?’
‘Nothing, clerk. You work in the chancery, in the courts of law. If you seek proof here I cannot give it. We are spiritual beings; we have faith in the things we cannot see, hear or touch. I believe Evesham was a most malignant creature.’
‘You also believe that your brother, Boniface, was innocent.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘So Evesham was lying?’
‘No.’ Doubt tinged her voice. ‘He was ruthlessly ambitious. Over the years I have learnt a little about what happened. Evesham was hunting a secret assassin, a murderer. He was determined to trap his quarry. I believe, despite all that, that he truly believed Boniface was guilty. He was determined on that.’
‘I think he was mistaken.’
‘Do you think Evesham realised that, I mean secretly?’
‘No, clerk, I do not. Evesham was as convinced of Boniface’s guilt as I am that you are here. I can see why.’ Her voice faltered. ‘Boniface could not truly account for being in that tavern. He did flee for sanctuary. He was secretive. He held certain scraps of manuscripts and more gold than he should have done.’
‘You say secretive, yet he was your brother.’
‘We lived our own lives in our narrow house in Catskin Alley off Cripplegate. I worked as a seamstress. Boniface was very much the royal clerk. I loved him dearly, but he was as elusive as a sunbeam. He was often away, and the rare times he did return, he’d be out before dawn and come back long after compline. He talked very little about what he did. He could not account for the gold and silver that sometimes bulged his purse. Other times he seemed as poor as a church mouse.’
‘So you know nothing really about him or the cause of his fall?’
‘Nothing at all, clerk. Sometimes I used to catch a rich smell of heavy perfume from him. Boniface, I am sure, visited the more expensive ladies of the town in the richly tapestried chambers of their own gilded world.’
‘I was left very much on my own. I had my sewing, some books, a few friends and, of course, Parson Tunstall. He invited me on to the parish council and asked me to look after the altar cloths, vestments and all the drapery of the church.’ A smile transformed her face, making it beautiful, youth-filled. ‘I know what you are thinking, clerk. No, I was not his doxy, his mistress. I was his friend; he was like a brother to me. We talked, we read, we walked, we laughed together, until the darkness fell on that hideous afternoon in June some twenty years ago. I was in my chamber. One of Parson Tunstall’s parishioners burst in all hot and bothered to tell me that Boniface had taken sanctuary in St Botulph’s. He was accused of some ghastly crime, a hanging offence, and a royal clerk, Walter Evesham, was determined on taking him. I was beside myself, besieged by the noonday terrors. I went down to the church, but Evesham was hot as the fires of hell against Boniface. He would not let me see him. He turned me away. I pleaded with him, but his heart, if he had one, was as hard as stone. When I returned the next day, Evesham had softened a little. He asked me for some token he could show my brother. I handed over a ring, a gift from my mother. Evesham must have given it to Boniface. I never saw it again, or my brother.’ She paused, head down, shoulders shaking.
Corbett stared at the window that framed this picture of misery. Adelicia sobbed a little, then raised her tear-wet face. ‘Two days later I heard that Boniface had disappeared.’ She lifted her mittened hands, Ave beads wrapped around her fingers. ‘I swear by all that is holy, I do not know what happened to him.’
‘He was beside himself with rage. He and his minion Engleat came to my house. They bullied and threatened me with every kind of torture and punishment. They claimed I knew something.’ Her voice faded. ‘I did not. They did the same to Parson Tunstall. When Evesham learnt we were friends, he swept back like a summer storm with his threats and cruel sarcasm. After a while he accepted that Boniface had disappeared and left us alone, but the damage had been done.’
‘Yet your brother left you a message protesting his innocence?’
‘Yes, yes, he did.’ Adelicia withdrew from the window. Corbett heard her move around, a coffer lid creaking open then snapping shut. She returned to the window and handed him a small scroll. ‘Please,’ she begged, ‘it is a keepsake. I want you to read it. The good Lord has answered my prayer.’
‘When Evesham had finished with us and realised that Boniface would never return, Parson Tunstall was a broken man. I was tired of life. I took a solemn vow to spend the rest of my years as an anchorite. I ask God one favour before I die.’ She drew a deep breath. ‘I want the truth. I want my brother vindicated. I have prayed and fasted for that. I have asked God to send his angel, and now he has. You!’
Corbett glanced up sharply.
‘We tend to think that angels come in shafts of light. They also come in flesh and blood. Oh yes, I’ve spoken to Brother Cuthbert, which is why he has been so honest and frank with you. This is the hour. Please read what I’ve given you.’
Corbett wondered how honest and frank this strange couple really were. Their responses were too well rehearsed. He was sure they were only telling him half-truths, but why? He sighed. That would have to wait. He undid the crinkling yellow parchment rubbed smooth over the years. The script was clear, bold, black and stark:
I stand in the centre, guiltless, and point to the four corners.
‘Don’t ask me what it means; that’s Boniface. My brother was a clerk, he loved puzzles. He was also afraid of Evesham. He never wrote or sent me any loving words. Only what was on his mind, the last thing he wrote, a secret message that Evesham would never discover. I believe it is the key to Boniface’s innocence. Remember it, clerk.’
Corbett handed the piece of manuscript back and stood listening. The sun was now full and strong, and wood pigeons had began their insistent cooing, chorused by the sheer lucid song of a blackbird. He breathed in the fragrance of the morning, the sweet smell of woodsmoke, fresh grass and the faint essence of oils and herbs.
‘So you believe your brother was innocent?’
‘Yes.’ The reply came haltingly. ‘Yes, I do, even though Boniface was so secretive, so furtive.’
‘Mistress, his conduct was highly suspicious.’
‘True. I can hardly blame Evesham for being so hot in his insistence that he was guilty.’
‘And your brother’s disappearance?’
‘Now that is a mystery. I know St Botulph’s, its every corner and cranny. Boniface could not have escaped through a window; they are too narrow, too high. No secret passageways exist; whilst every door was closely guarded.’
‘And his first escape,’ Corbett asked, ‘when he fled to St Botulph’s? If Evesham was so hot against him, how did that happen?’
‘I asked Brother Cuthbert about that. It was logical. Boniface knew the runnels and alleyways of Cripplegate. He acted all stricken and stumbled. Evesham had gone on ahead, pushing aside the crowds, whilst his bailiffs escorted my brother. I understand they had another prisoner. The crowd was milling about. The bailiffs went to pick Boniface up and he suddenly broke free, fleeing through the open door of a shop, or so Brother Cuthbert learnt from parishioners who were there.’
Corbett nodded in understanding. Every day in London criminals were arrested, escaped and fled for sanctuary. It was a common hazard. The narrow streets, the alleyways and runnels, doors and gates flung open, the crowds thronging about, whilst the deep dislike of bailiffs and beadles was commonplace. Yet Boniface had fled. Was that sign of guilt? Was he a killer, a skilled, sly, secretive man who lived two lives?
‘Are you finished, clerk?’
‘You seem eager to be rid of me.’
‘No, Sir Hugh.’ Adelicia laughed. ‘I sense what you are, a good man as well as a royal clerk.’ She paused. ‘If there is such a mixture. Yes, you are good, one who has not yet sold his soul.’
‘And your brother, Boniface, did he sell his?’
‘God knows, Sir Hugh. I can see, or rather sense, your mind spinning like a wheel. Was Boniface the Mysterium? What happened to him? All a great mystery,’ she continued in a whisper. ‘I shall think, reflect and sleep. Perhaps the ghosts of yesteryear will return. If I remember anything, I shall tell you.’
‘And Brother Cuthbert, do you and he ever meet?’
‘Of course we do, especially on a warm summer’s evening when the sun is setting and Goose Meadow is bathed in God’s glory. We sit on the grass, hold hands and remember happier days. Farewell, Sir Hugh.’
The shutters across the window closed abruptly. Corbett shrugged and walked back through the trees to meet Ranulf striding across the frost-glistening grass, clapping his hands to keep them warm and loudly assuring Corbett that Father Abbot confirmed all that Brother Cuthbert had told them. The peace and harmony of the abbey had not been disturbed, not a jot or a tittle, until Abbot Serlo had been roused after his dawn Mass with the news that Evesham would not answer any knocking.
‘Gone to God,’ murmured Corbett, staring up at a crow circling above him. ‘Gone to God’s tribunal now, Ranulf, to join Ignacio Engleat. Lord knows the indictment they’ll have to answer.’ He breathed out, half listening to the faint sounds of the abbey, the drifting words of a cantor, the muffled clatter of cart wheels and the peal of a handbell being rung along the cloisters. ‘Ranulf, who murdered Ignacio Engleat? Who crept in here with subtle wit and cunning mind to execute Lord Evesham? Why the secrecy, why the mystery?’
‘Brother Cuthbert?’ Ranulf stared hard at his master. Corbett was thinking and Ranulf relished what was about to happen. The pursuit would begin with Corbett the lurcher, the staghound. He’d twist and turn like the hunter he was until his prey was trapped, penned and marked for slaughter.
‘You think so?’ Corbett mused. ‘Possible, Ranulf. Brother Cuthbert and Adelicia could be the murderers, at least of Evesham. They certainly had good cause to hate him, and yet . . .’
‘And yet what?’
Corbett’s eye was caught by the twinkle of light from one of the gilded windows of the abbey church.
‘Too simple,’ he murmured. ‘Sin is like a fox, Ranulf, it leaves a stinking trail that even the years cannot wash out or hide. A killer has now taken up that scent. Ancient sins, long-buried evil, a tangle of poisonous roots are now festering. There is a time and season under heaven for everything, or so Scripture would have us believe. The year’s thawing is over, long gone, harvest beckons, vengeance time is here.’
‘And so, master?’
‘Look,’ Corbett shook himself free of his reverie, ‘we’ll return to London. Ranulf, you and Chanson are off to the Comfort of Bathsheba at Queenshithe, to establish what actually did happen to Ignacio Engleat.’
‘And you, master?’
‘I am going back down the tunnel of the years. I’ll return to the chancery, to the pouches of the Secret Seal, and see what seeds of sin I can detect there.’
The Teller of Tales, as the assassin called himself, his hooded face dirty behind its garish mask, stood on the plinth that according to the city worthies was once part of a pagan temple. He was not interested in that; he was carefully watching the great open expanse before the towering iron-clad doors of Newgate. It was a filthy, sombre building, and the stench from behind its grey-stone walls curled and wafted everywhere, an odour of dirt, despondency and despair. At the close-barred windows of the soaring towers either side of the great gate, mad, frenetic faces, hair all tangled, peered greedily out at those now assembling on the cobbled bailey before the prison. The gathering crowd cursed and shouted as they slipped and slithered on the wet offal and blood that poured from the nearby fleshers’ stalls. A motley collection of rogues, cutpurses, counterfeiters, cunning men, coney-catchers, rifflers and ribauds was congregating to greet Giles Waldene and Hubert the Monk. An abrupt proclamation regarding these miscreants had been issued by the catchpoles from the steps of the Guildhall. The two riffler leaders, with no real evidence against them, were to be released immediately. Everyone recognised the truth. Lord Evesham’s murder meant the Crown’s case against them had collapsed, whilst no proof could be lodged that either gang-leader had been party to the recent bloody riots at the prison. In fact both rogues had been lodged deep in Newgate’s pestilential pits and had nothing to do with the malefactors whose tarred and pickled heads now decorated the spikes high on the prison walls. The hour had been set. Waldene and Hubert were to be released after the bells proclaimed terce. Gossips talked of reconciliation between the two factions after the recent riot. Already a chamber had been hired for the consequent festivities in the spacious pink and black-timbered tavern the Angel’s Salutation, which stood on the corner of a crooked alleyway close to the prison concourse.